An Ohio woman who booked a Spirit Airlines flight to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary became the millionth passenger who will fly out of the once-struggling Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity.
Carol and Alex Jones of Toronto, Ohio, didn’t know until last week that they’d be celebrating the airport’s milestone before their own when they fly to Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Oct. 25.
“We were very surprised,” Carol Jones said about hearing the message left on their telephone answering machine saying she was the millionth passenger and inviting them to Thursday’s celebration of the milestone at the airport.
Her husband — who was either one shy or one ahead of becoming the millionth passenger, as the flights were booked at the same time — will get to share the benefits his wife received. The airline is covering the cost of the anniversary flight, gave the couple two free tickets for flights, and served them cake and refreshments at the airport.
The celebration by airport and government officials was all about a milestone that illustrated the successful revival of the airport from its bleaker days in 2009, when it lost Northwest Airlines as a carrier.
“We were just trying to figure out how we could survive” back then, said Donald Rossi, a member of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority board.
Spirit Airlines stepped up to help. Despite the recession, the low-cost carrier that flies around the nation and Central and South America saw positives of continual growth in the region, a customer-friendly airport, and reduced operating costs compared to Pittsburgh International Airport, said Mark Kopczak, Spirit vice president of network planning.
“The region has economic growth. That was an important piece,” he said about the decision to bring service to the Latrobe area.
And Arnold Palmer Regional could draw passengers from Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, New York and Maryland, Kopczak said.
The Florida-based carrier initiated service with flights to Florida in February 2011, carrying slightly more than 64,000 passengers the first year. Spirit Airlines now flies to seven cities from the airport, but it announced in August that it will eliminate flights to Chicago and Las Vegas on Nov. 12.
Kopczak would not discuss plans for adding service at the airport, but said Spirit is in a growth mode and has ordered 90 new planes to be purchased over the next five years.
The authority is continuing discussions to add routes to the airport, said Gabriel Monzo, airport authority executive director. While airlines that service Pittsburgh typically are not interested, there are other airlines that might consider this market, Monzo said.
The authority is projecting that 350,000 passengers will go through Arnold Palmer Regional this year, Rossi said during the millionth passenger celebration. About 280,000 passengers have gone through the airport on Spirit flights this year. PennDOT’s Bureau of Aviation has estimated the airport’s economic impact on the area at more than $150 million, up from $98 million four years ago, according to the airport’s annual report.
“We’re not in competition with any other airport,” said Rossi, former authority chairman. “We’re filling a niche that Spirit gave us.”
And the Joneses are happy the niche is there. Even though Pittsburgh or Cleveland are closer to their home, the couple said that low fares and free parking make the nearly two-hour drive to Arnold Palmer Regional a worthwhile pick over the big city airports.
“Spirit is really great. They do a fantastic job here,” Carol Jones said.