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With Some Big Plans and Bigger Ideas, More Growth Is in the Air for University Park Airport

by on June 13, 2019 5:30 AM

Big changes are coming to University Park Airport.

The State College regional airport experienced a record year in air travel last year and is on track to beat that record in 2019. The resulting changes – new infrastructure and facilities and new routes – stand to benefit not only the business and leisure travelers that live in the Centre County area, but also the county’s economy as a whole, as more accessibility attracts business and brings in tourism dollars from across the country.

Two governing entities oversee various aspects of the airport operation. Penn State University owns the airport land and is responsible for the airfield, control tower, rescue and firefighting, and airport security, including TSA. The Centre County Airport Authority oversees the terminal building and passenger facilities such as public parking, while also building relationships with airlines currently operating out of the airport, and those that are considering entering the market.

James Meyer is the executive director of the Centre County Airport Authority, working with a nine-person board led by chairman Chris Groshel. Both men have aviation backgrounds, but that’s no prerequisite for airport authority involvement. The board is made up of a good balance of individuals with experience in aviation, business and government, as well as a few Penn State faculty retirees.

Meyer, a State College native, became the executive director in 2007 and, under his leadership, the airport seized a record year of enplanements, meaning the number of people boarding aircraft at University Park Airport; Meyer and Groshel point out that the number of people arriving at the airport is very similar, as State College is a destination with no connecting flights, so doubling the number of enplanements reveals just how many travelers pass through the airport each year.

“The old [enplanement] record was 141,000, set in 2007,” says Meyer. “That year was shortly before the financial crash and everything slowed down. …But last year, 2018, we exceeded that by over 10,000. We had over 151,000 [enplanements] in 2018. … This year, so far, three months have been reported [and] we are 7,600 passenger enplanements ahead of last year’s first three months. I’m anticipating … 160,000 [enplanements] this year.”

Or, in other words, 320,000 people going through the terminal.

The airport is up to, on average, 16 flights per day. In April, American Airlines added two more routes to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, complementing the airline’s service to Philadelphia. Total Chicago air traffic from State College, including United Airlines service, is five flights per day, making it the airport’s most popular destination.

“We seem to be in a growing spurt in air service right now,” says Meyer.

Why Chicago? Not only is it relevant for its connection to Penn State as a Big Ten Conference destination, but O’Hare also recently surpassed Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as the busiest in the country, with more connections than any other U.S. airport.

The added Chicago service isn’t only a boon for those leaving the area; it’s also a benefit to those visiting State College.

For the Central Pennsylvania Convention & Visitors Bureau, it means an opportunity to attract new travelers to the area.

“Any increase in service helps, and as there are limited service options to the Midwest currently, this opens up a new opportunity for us to attract visitors from that part of the country,” says Fritz Smith, executive director of the bureau.

Smith notes that the area’s recent hotel room tax increase gives the bureau additional resources to expand its marketing reach further geographically, saying, “The airport will be a bigger factor in the coming years in how we ‘sell’ Centre County.

“As we increase our marketing efforts, we will certainly tout the ease and affordability visitors will experience when leaving our airport in terms of location and quick movement through security. A small airport can be a real selling point.”

A flight takes off from University Park Airport. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert.

Room for Growth

However, Smith does recognize that there’s room for improvement.

“Anything we can do collectively to bring more service here is key,” he says. “Pricing is difficult for the airport to affect, but if there was anything we could do in that area, it would help mitigate some of the leakage we experience with our own residents traveling to Harrisburg and other airports. If we can generate more demand locally, it helps with attracting new service.”

This leakage to Harrisburg International Airport is an issue the Centre County business community is well aware of, as Dr. Joel Myers, CEO of AccuWeather, attests.

“There’s no question that there are tens of thousands of people a year in State College flying out of Harrisburg rather than State College, because of the costs,” he says.

With offices all around the country and the world, State College-based AccuWeather shuttles its employees around quite a lot. With one of its main offices located in New York City, the company acutely feels the lack of a route between State College and any of the city’s three major airports.

“There are no flights to the New York City area, so we have a lot of people driving back and forth, sometimes taking the train, sometimes using charters and so on. Years ago, there were four flights to LaGuardia Airport, 10-14 years ago. More connections to Newark or Laguardia or even JFK would be welcome,” says Myers.

Because of this, he notes, in the past, AccuWeather has hired employees to work out of the New York City office, rather than the State College world headquarters.

“State College already has an issue because it’s isolated,” Myers says. “State College is not a destination city. As a result, the business community and the infrastructure must go out of their way to make it appealing. It hurts the growth in the area in many ways people don’t realize.”

This, however, is an issue the community is facing head on. Earlier in the year, the Chamber of Business & Industry of Centre County joined the convention and visitor’s bureau to found an air service committee. The committee includes representatives from the airport authority, business, the community, and Penn State.

“Our mission is to continue to assess the needs [of] the community and also to market to and inform the community of the service options we have for both business and leisure travelers alike,” says Vern Squier, president and CEO at the CBICC.

“In my experience, the better a community can be informed of those business and leisure travel opportunities, that they may not think of until they need the service and are ready to take that particular trip, if they can think of this option first, versus a drive-away option, it’s oftentimes better for all concerned, especially from a cost and convenience standpoint,” Squier adds. “Increased patronage of our airport will continue to lift up the service levels and the offerings that we can make available to everyone.”

Squier also argues that travelers are not, in fact, often saving costs by traveling to another nearby airport.

“As our service options increase, we’re meeting more and more of the demand of our business community; however, as our business community continues to grow and time pressures are all around us, some folks still desire additional route offerings,” he says. “The truth of the matter is, by the time people drive away to another airport and incur the costs and the time differential, parking fees, etc. … it’s more cost-effective still to fly out of State College than it is in many cases to drive to those other airports.

“I think with [travelers’] continual patronage, costs will go down, as airlines can achieve the enplanements that they would like to have.”

It’s a sentiment that Groshel and Meyer from the airport authority echo.

“When you talk about the people that don’t travel out of State College and drive to Pittsburgh or Dulles or Baltimore, they don’t realize what great options are here,” says Groshel.

Meyer points out that ticket costs have gone down in comparison to flights out of Harrisburg, and now travelers can find better deals flying out of University Park Airport much more often than in years previous. He also affirms Squier’s opinion that driving to another airport is costly in terms of time, if not dollars. He expects costs to become more competitive with the new American Airlines route to Chicago, as the airline goes head to head with United to win passengers for the route.

Potential new destination

Additionally, a new direct destination may be in the pipeline for University Park Airport in the future, which could make flights from State College even more attractive. Currently, travelers headed to the South are often routed through Philadelphia via American Airlines. However, Charlotte Douglas International Airport is currently undergoing some huge renovations, building a new wing just for regional jets, according to Meyer, and American Airlines indicated that it is considering a route to and from State College for one of these new gate slots.

That would end up being two flights per day to start. “We feel that they’ll be nearly full every flight,” says Meyer. These regional gates are slated to open for business in early 2020.

Unfortunately, for those like AccuWeather’s Myers who dream of a quick flight to New York City, the Big Apple doesn’t appear to be in the airport’s future.

Meyer explains that regional airports like University Park offer flights only to airline hubs. The airlines want to bring passengers from smaller destinations to hubs, to then be boarded onto a larger plane to fly to another destination. Because of this, direct flights to business destinations like Pittsburgh or vacation destinations like Myrtle Beach aren’t in the cards.

New York City offers several airline hubs, so what’s the issue?

Meyer says that, because of the busy air space above New York City airports, air traffic control is constantly in the process of asking airlines to cut back on their flights into the air space by 10 or 20 percent, particularly during poor weather. Therefore, when an airline looks at routes it might drop, it’s more likely to remove smaller regional jets from its roster, in lieu of larger, more profitable planes. Hence, United provides service from State College to Washington, D.C., versus New York City.

"A small airport can be a real selling point," says the visitors bureau's Fritz Smith.

What’s ahead

Before University Park Airport can continue adding service and routes, though, it’s looking to address some more urgent needs – namely, more public parking and some taxiway updates.

Currently in the works is a $9 million project that impacts the airport’s parking, bus terminal, access road, and stormwater pit. To disturb travel as minimally as possible, the project, which was slated to begin in late May or early June, is staggered.

The stormwater pits in the front of the building will be filled and stormwater diverted, and an access road created opposite Alexander Drive. A longer entryway will ensure rideshare services and taxis are safely kept off Fox Hill Road. A covered sidewalk will protect travelers from the elements as they navigate the expanded parking lots.

The first stage of the project will be constructing a 332-spot parking lot on a currently empty field, which the airport plans to lease from Penn State University. After this lot is completed and opened – hopefully, Meyer says, before Thanksgiving – the existing lot will be closed and construction will begin there, including the relocation of the current exit booth.

On the Penn State side of airport operations, Bryan Rodgers, C.M., director at University Park Airport and Penn State Aviation Center, explains the proposed taxiway updates.

“One large project in the planning stages at this point is the $35 million to improve our parallel taxiway alpha and add some additional infrastructure to support larger, narrow-body aircraft. …The taxiway alpha pavement is at the end of it useful life … [at 20-plus years old].”

The changes, he says, will make the airport more accommodating for larger aircraft, which the airport now sees on a more frequent basis, including Boeing 737 and Boeing 757 aircraft, often charter jets.

Additionally, Rodgers’ team is in the design stages for a new aircraft rescue and firefighting facility, in order to have a more “robust” response team.

Similar to the parking lot project, Rodgers assures that the taxiway refurbishment would be conducted in phases, to allow the airport to continue operations as-is. The project’s timeline depends on when and if funding comes through, but might not begin until 2021, after which the project could take up to two years.

The parking project, on the other hand, should, if all goes according to schedule, wrap up within a year and a half.

Afterward, Meyer and Groshel hint at bigger things to come.

“If we do everything we can with the current footprint we have, we can do 204,000 enplanements per year,” says Groshel.

“With all these extra enplanements, this terminal can only handle [a certain] amount. But as we grow, we need to expand,” adds Meyer.

The plan? Expand upward. In the years to come, the airport authority may just set its sights on a second terminal floor, which would not only allow for more travel, but would also facilitate jetways.

With record travelers passing through the airport – making it the sixth busiest in the state – University Park Airport is rising to new heights. As it looks to the future, it sees clear skies ahead.

 

Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.

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