SkyWest jet in Johnstown

Workers prepare to begin loading passengers into a United Express jet at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport on Dec. 4, 2020. 

Although none of United Airlines’ 270 new jets are coming to Johnstown, airport leaders say the airline’s growth is “great news” for those using SkyWest Airlines’ United Express service from Johnstown to Washington and Chicago.

United said Tuesday that it is ordering 200 Boeing Max jets and 70 Airbus planes so it can replace some of its aging planes and grow after the pandemic eases.

As it brings on the new planes, United will be adding more nonstop destinations from Chicago O’Hare International Airport and more international destinations from Washington’s Dulles International Airport. That makes the local SkyWest/United Express service more attractive, said Rick McQuaide, chairman of the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority.

McQuaide said he spoke to a United representative on Tuesday.

“What they believe is, things are roaring back,” McQuaide said. “That means more flight options and more flight times for our travelers.”

The local service is also expanding. Beginning Thursday, the schedule will include flights to both Dulles and O’Hare seven days a week. Currently, there are Johnstown flights to each airport six days a week.

“There will be a flight every single day to Chicago, and there will be a flight every single day to Dulles,” McQuaide said. “They are adding that, which is great news for local travelers.”

SkyWest began operating the Johnstown service in December with 50-passenger twin jets.

Although passenger counts were down over the winter, as the COVID-19 pandemic eased, ticket sales are up. In fact, the airport served more passengers last month than in any May since 2012.

Michael Parrish, chairman of the authority’s airline committee, said the local growth and United’s plans are encouraging.

“If United is investing that much on their belief that the future of travel is bright, it can only benefit Johnstown,” Parrish said. “The service from Johnstown is the link between our community and United travel all over the world. Domestic travel is roaring back to pre-pandemic levels, and with our United Express service and their new planes, our community has access that previously did not exist.”

United said it ordered 50 Boeing 737 Max 8 jets, 150 slightly larger 737 Max 10s, and 70 Airbus A321neos, which are larger still and usually seat 220 passengers in economy and premium.

United’s deal would be more than $30 billion at list prices, although airlines routinely get deep discounts, sometimes more than half, according to analysts. United declined to disclose terms, The Associated Press reports.

It is one of the largest orders ever for commercial planes and underscores that airlines see a recovery underway and expect to return to the profitability they enjoyed before the pandemic crushed air travel more than a year ago.

It is also, of course, a major boost for the world’s two main aircraft makers, especially Boeing. The Chicago-based company saw orders plummet after Max jets were grounded following two deadly crashes. The pandemic has hurt sales, too. Boeing “needs to play a bit of catch-up,” and so it likely gave United a steep discount, George Dimitroff, analyst with Ascend by Cirium, told The Associated Press.

“From here forward, pricing will get firmer,” Dimitroff said. “I think that United is probably taking advantage of the last of the good pricing.”

United claims the orders will create 25,000 jobs over several years, although executives did not describe how they arrived at that figure. The airline has about 68,000 employees now.

The larger Airbus planes will be particularly valuable in San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey, where limited runways prevent United from adding many more flights, said Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer.

About 300 of the planes will replace jets that United plans to retire by 2026, including most of its Boeing 757s, while 200 will be used for growth, Nocella said.

Although the planes in the new order are all narrow, single-aisle jets designed for domestic flying, United also has pending orders for so-called widebody planes used on international routes, and Nocella predicted that 2022 will be a record year for U.S.-Europe travel.

U.S. air travel has been slowly recovering since April 2020, when it dove below 100,000 people a day – a 1950s level of flying.

The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 2.2 million people on Sunday, the highest number in 15 months, but still 18% below the comparable Sunday in June 2019.

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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