Saturday, February 25, 2017

Planners approach Arnold Palmer Regional Airport (KLBE) expansion with caution

When Arnold Palmer Regional Airport expanded in 1998, planners anticipated serving about 20,000 travelers a year flying on planes that would accommodate up to 30 passengers each. Nearly two decades later, the airport terminal sees roughly 300,000 passengers annually on planes that can seat as many as 175.

Given that impressive growth, the Westmoreland County Airport Authority is planning for a terminal expansion that could increase space by as much as 50 percent, to about 75,000 square feet.

“Everything is out to its capacity,” authority Executive Director Gabe Monzo said of the Unity facility.

Still, he indicated there's no rush to turn the expansion plans, under development for about two years, into bricks and mortar. The project likely will remain in a holding pattern, at least for 2017, as the authority focuses on capital improvements to the grounds — rehabilitation of the runway, which will be widened from 100 feet to 150 feet at an estimated cost of $2.3 million; completion of a taxiway upgrade; and the addition of up to 200 parking spaces.

Funds allocated through the Federal Aviation Administration and the state Bureau of Aviation will cover most of the runway cost. As for the proposed update of the three-story terminal, Monzo said, the goal is to have a shovel-ready design in place for whenever the authority can secure funding, ranging from an estimated $8 million to $12 million.

In keeping with past practice, authority members likely will proceed with caution, Monzo said.

“They don't want to build a white elephant that's not going to be used,” he said. “You have to do it in tempered growth.”

The scope of the expansion will be driven by the number of gates and enclosed bridges to convey passengers between the terminal and arriving or departing planes. With the existing single bridge, Monzo said, some passengers must be escorted outside across the tarmac when two flights by primary carrier Spirit Airlines are scheduled within 15 minutes of each other — at least a weekly occurrence.

“It takes a couple of extra people to control that, and it slows the process down,” he noted.

The flexible project design by Ethan Hines of KTH Architects would extend the northeast end of the terminal by various lengths to accommodate two or three bridges.

“We thought two bridges would be a great way to start,” Monzo said.

Other changes would move passengers through the terminal more efficiently, including a security checkpoint that would double from one lane to two.

Passengers must ascend or descend between floors as they navigate the terminal. In the redesign, all passenger activities would occur on the second floor and authority offices would be relocated to the first floor, along with an enlarged area for handling outgoing baggage, Hines said. The third floor would feature an expanded banquet room and restrooms.

The updated terminal would have a new bar and lounge and more seating for passengers waiting to board planes.

“We'd like to have a 350-seat hold room so you could put at least two flights in there that have been screened (through security),” Monzo said.

He suggested the authority may consider, as an initial project, converting a large glass window into a separate exit for arriving passengers who have claimed their baggage so they won't conflict with others entering the terminal from the parking area.

In addition to securing funding, the feasibility of the terminal project rests on keeping the airport busy.

After continuous growth since Spirit's arrival in 2011, the airport's annual passenger number dropped from 355,910 in 2015 to 289,832 last year. It's a decrease Spirit, which flies to multiple Florida destinations, has attributed to ending service to Las Vegas and Chicago. Airport officials hope to rebound with Southern Airways Express showing interest in adding four daily shuttle flights, as early as April, to Pittsburgh International Airport.

Negotiations for the connecting flights are under way, said Mark Cestari, Southern Airways' executive vice president for business development. “The customer base is already there. The airport is user-friendly,” he said. “Our job will be to just get (potential passengers) to know us.” 

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