National Guard makes presence known at Westmoreland airport
Security at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport cranked up another notch Friday.
But airport officials and merchants there want the public to know that they remain open for business as usual.
‘Security has stepped up, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t come here,’ airport Manager Gabe Monzo said. ‘It just means you’re safer when you do. Actually, this is probably one of the safest places you could be.’
The Army National Guard announced earlier this week that it would provide a military presence at 16 commercial airports in Pennsylvania. At 7 a.m. yesterday, National Guard personnel assumed posts next to state police at Westmoreland County’s primary airport.
Wearing camouflage battle dress uniforms and black berets and carrying sidearms, nightsticks and other security gear, the Guard’s mission ‘is to set a presence to help with airport security and the state police,’ said Guard Cpl. Allen Overly.
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‘Airport security, National Guard, us – we’re all working together,’ added Lt. Dale Blasko, who has been assigned to oversee state police presence at the airport. ‘We’ll all do whatever we have to do to ensure airport security.’
Like every other commercial service airport across the country, Arnold Palmer Regional locked down on Sept. 11 during the terrorist attacks on the United States. It was among the first to reopen two days later under stringent new Federal Aviation Administration security rules, but some aspects of airport operation have yet to return to normal.
A large yellow sign at the airport’s main entrance announces: ‘All Terminal Facilities Are Open.’
Posting the placard was an effort to alert the public that (other than heightened security) things are pretty much ‘normal’ there, officials said.
But they admit it hasn’t delivered the impact desired.
One obstacle, airport authority Executive Director Gene Lakin speculated, has been the FAA-required 300-foot buffer zone in front of the main terminal. At Arnold Palmer, that meant cordoning off the parking area closest to the terminal.
‘I think a lot of people look over here now and see the orange barrels and think they can’t come in,’ Lakin speculated. ‘I think that has hurt a lot.’
The regulation initially restricted front-door drop-off. But that has been amended.
As airport secretary Linda Brasile has explained countless times to callers over the past few weeks, ‘You can pull up in front of the terminal to drop off people and baggage, but you just can’t leave your car unattended.’
Meanwhile, passengers using the airport’s sole commercial commuter flight service, USAir Express, have been steadily coming back since the shutdown.
‘It’s picking up,’ said Sabrina Murray, a customer service manager with the airline. ‘Traffic has been getting progressively better as each week goes along.’
Murray said the commuter is currently running seven flights a day to Pittsburgh International Airport in Allegheny County. The first flight out currently departs at 7:50 a.m., and the last run of the day takes off at 9:35 p.m.
Two more daily flights are scheduled to resume on Nov. 1, barring any unforeseen changes in the national climate, Murray added. And flying the commuter is ‘more convenient now than it ever was,’ due to the bonus of beating long lines in larger airports.
Still, she advises passengers to ‘reconfirm their flight schedules with US Airways at least 24 hours in advance and plan to arrive one hour ahead of takeoff to check in due to enhanced security procedures.’
‘And they need to call US Airways (at 800-428-4322) to check those flights,’ Murray reminded. ‘Not the airport.’
Several other airport merchants also reported that business has resumed to nearly normal levels since the closing.
‘Surprisingly enough, it has been pretty good,’ said Barb Twaddle, manager of Run Away Travel Inc. ‘We were slow the first week, but it has been picking up.’
‘I think people are going back to flying,’ added Christine Zahornacky, station manager at Hertz Rent-A-Car. ‘I feel very safe up here.’
Control tower Chief Charles W. Green said that air traffic figures ‘are coming back up. It’s not quite to pre-Sept. 11 levels yet, but it’s getting there.’
Still, some airport merchants haven’t quite caught up since the closing.
‘It has been awful,’ said Patty Monzo, vice president of Jimmie Monzo’s Blue Angels Restaurant. ‘The situation has certainly hurt our business. But the problem is, I don’t know if people aren’t coming because of the parking or because they aren’t going anywhere.’
Whether you’re dining or flying, the enhanced security measures are not intimidating.
Guards aren’t quick to accost visitors to the airport. It’s more of a friendly greeting – a nod, a wave, a ‘good morning,’ or ‘how’s it going?’
‘Normally, we can tell what business people might have here when they come,’ explained Ralph ‘Bull’ Pershing of Point Security Co. of Youngwood.
But make no mistake.
‘If something looks out of place or suspicious, we will ask them where they’re headed and what they’re doing,’ Pershing said. ‘And most people have been very understanding.’
‘People seem more aware now of what’s going on,’ added Lt. Brian A. Torok, chief of airport police. ‘A lot of people ask where they can go and what they can do, and we are happy to tell them.’
Torok said he has had to augment his staff since Sept. 11 and plans to add even more personnel.
The heightened security presence is estimated to last at least six months.
‘We are here until the governor tells us different,’ Overly said. ‘Until the president says we’re no longer needed here.’
‘And really, I think the security measure has always been here,’ he added. ‘We’re just making it more visible. We are here to assure people that it’s very safe get on the airplanes and fly. It’s safe.’