New Chicago service boosts University Park Airport growth

Kelsey Gruss was the first passenger to be screened at the University Park Airport for the first direct flight to Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Tuesday.

When she jokingly asked Jim Meyer, director and operational manager of the commercial airline terminal, what her prize was for being first, he gave her an engraved University Park Airport pen.

But the real prize for Gruss was a convenient flight to Chicago.

“I’ll be taking this a couple times a year,” Gruss said.

Gruss, of Danville, is a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Before the airport announced in September that United Airlines would have direct flights to and from O’Hare, Gruss was making the drive to the airport in Allentown.

Now, she said it only takes her a little more than an hour to get to University Park Airport.

“It helps because it’s so convenient,” Gruss said.

This new nonstop service is one of the many ways the airport is growing, Meyer said.

“Prior to 2008, we were growing in double digits in the way of what we call enplanements,” Meyer said. “When the airline industry crashed around that time with the economy, we went backward and have worked our way back to where we were in 2008 in way of enplanements. What will help our growth is this new Chicago destination. Once again we will start growing our enplanements for this year to double-digits percent-wise.”

Enplanements are used to determine how busy an airport is.

University Park Airport will host two flights daily to Chicago and back.

With a plane that seats 50, Meyer said the first flights in and out Tuesday had between 31 to 34 passengers.

“Those are good numbers to start a new route,” he said. “From here, we’ll work on making those full flights.”

Other flights locally have been full.

“We really got to the point where we couldn’t grow without growing in more cities,” Meyer said. “Many times I hear an announcement for one, two or three passengers to give up their seats because of overbooked situations or a weight imbalance.”

University Park Airport averages 13 to 16 flights daily, serviced by Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways, Meyer said.

The next step is getting more airlines and more destinations that could include Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Newark, N.J.; and Orlando, Fla.

“It’s always on the back of our minds and in the front of our minds,” Meyer said. “What people don’t realize is that it takes many years of talking with the airline and selling ourselves to them that this would be a profitable venture for them.”

The sales pitch: Penn State.

“What we have here is Penn State. Because of Penn State it has a huge international traffic out of this airport,” Meyer said. “We have one of the largest international flow of traffic for this size airport as anywhere in the U.S., and that’s where they can make money on these long hauls. It’s generated by Penn State.”

And while working on expanding its destination base, Meyer added that the short-term goal for the airport includes improving the infrastructure that is a multimillion-dollar task.

“The terminal right now, for the amount of traffic we have, is in good shape, but (we) want to add to our runways and lengthening runways is on the books down the road.”

Other improvements include a new field truck and snow-removal equipment and an upgraded electrical system.

A future plan calls for a 480-space long-term parking lot to the north of the airport that will be completed in two phases. The parking lot project is in the infancy stages of planning, Meyer said.