MARTINSBURG - A low-cost airline company operating in Westmoreland County is attracting Florida-bound passengers with low ticket prices and easy access to the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport near Latrobe.
A similar or the same set-up with Spirit Airlines can't be arranged at the Altoona-Blair County Airport, local leaders say, because the airport's runway isn't long enough and because no money is available to pay for lengthening it.
"We have the space to do it," airport manager Charles Pillar said. "It's just the money."
An airport consultant estimates the cost of lengthening a runway at $10 million to $20 million, depending on site's characteristics.
Plans for such a project would go through a step-by-step process and governmental review, likely to last five to seven years, before construction could start, said David W. Jones of Delta Airport Consultants, adviser to the county-owned airport.
After Spirit, a Miramar, Fla.-based company, initiated flights in 2011 from the Latrobe-area airport to Fort Lauderdale, passenger numbers started climbing and by the end of the year, reached 64,000.
Spirit provides flights on an Airbus 319 with seating of up to 145 passengers, which that airport can accommodate on its 8,223-foot runway.
In comparison, the Altoona-Blair County Airport has a 5,465-foot runway.
Since the inaugural flights, Spirit has added destinations from Latrobe to Orlando and Myrtle Beach, S.C., bringing in more passengers with the hope of reaching 200,000 by the end of 2012.
Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority member Herbert Bolger said he had three friends who flew to Orlando and paid no more than $179 for the round-trip flight.
"With Spirit flying out of Latrobe, it's a bargain," he said.
Spirit's online reservation systems, checked Wednesday for September flights, showed a fare as low as $167 for a roundtrip flight between Latrobe to Orlando. The price does not include Spirit's carry-on baggage fees for items that won't fit beneath a seat.
Online reservation systems for a similar flight from Pittsburgh to Orlando showed a fare of $246 with no carry-on baggage fee. If using the Altoona-Blair County Airport, where passengers first fly to the Washington-Dulles International Airport, a roundtrip ticket for a September trip to Orlando would cost $347.
Altoona-Blair County Airport leaders said they have scouted for carriers interested in providing regular flights to specific destinations.
Before Spirit located in Latrobe, a carrier showed interest in setting up roundtrip flights to Atlantic City, Pillar said. But at the time, the carrier had no baggage handling agreement and without that, passengers heading beyond Atlantic City would need to pick up their bags and recheck them for additional destinations.
Runway length remains a barrier, too, Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority member Gary Orner said.
During a past attempt to stir interest, Orner said a carrier told him that he would not use anything smaller than a 737 aircraft for such a flight. Made in nine models, a 737 aircraft can be manufactured with as few as 85 seats and as many as 215 seats, according to the manufacturer's website.
"We don't have the adequate runway to accommodate a 737," Pillar said.
To justify a request for federal aviation funds to lengthen a runway, Jones said the Altoona-Blair County Airport would need either a current user desiring more runway length or a tenant who owns an aircraft that requires more length.
Even if the airport had that, Jones said the current economic climate would play a role in trying to secure federal funds designated for airport improvement projects.
"Funding would be a hangup," Jones said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.