'Air Silk Road' plans advance

Within a year, Pittsburgh International Airport could be closer to shipping cargo to and from northern China's largest airport, Allegheny County officials said Thursday.

The county airport authority has signed a letter of intent to establish an air cargo partnership with Xi'an Xianyang International Airport, which is within a two-hour flight of 75 percent of China's land, officials said. The county will create a task force to work on the issue.

County Chief Executive Dan Onorato wants the partnership to transform an airport still reeling from US Airways job and flight cuts into the nation's largest inland international hub.

"I look at the airport differently than most people ... I look at it and say, 'What do we do with that asset?'" Onorato said. "China's one of the fastest growing countries in the world, (and) there's a market there our companies are servicing."

Coastal cities such as New York, Miami and Los Angeles have cargo routes overseas, but few cities the size of Pittsburgh do, said Mike Langley, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

"This is just the beginning, but I think it bodes well for the region," Langley said. "It's an indicator that we're a global economy player."

The partnership would create what officials yesterday called an "Air Silk Road" -- a reference to Xi'an's location at the eastern end of the 5,000-mile trade route that once linked the Roman Empire with imperial China.

Officials stressed, however, that potential routes are two-way roads. The partnership would give Chinese businesses access to American consumers. Pittsburgh International is within 500 miles of almost half the population of the United States and Canada, officials said.

One Pittsburgh businessman applauded the effort as a major step forward for relations between Southwest Pennsylvania and China.

"For cities of Pittsburgh's size, I think it's quite rare," said David Iwinski, CEO of the medical transcription company Acusis and a member of a county group that deals with U.S.-China business and relations. "It causes people to think about this city in a different way."

The move also likely would drop the cost of doing business with or shipping goods to China, Iwinski said.

Federal Express -- the largest cargo carrier at Pittsburgh International -- charges about $75 to ship a football from Downtown to Shanghai and about $270 to ship a 20-pound box. UPS, Pittsburgh International's second-largest cargo carrier, charges about $95 for the football and $270 for the box.

County Airport Authority Chairman Glenn Mahone said he wasn't sure how many dollars or jobs the partnership could generate. But, he said he remains optimistic that officials can make good progress within a year toward establishing the relationship.

"This is the first step in a long journey," Mahone said. "We're hopeful this will bear early fruit."

More than 750,000 passengers flew into or out of Pittsburgh International in September, the most recent figures show. During the same month, the airport handled nearly 12.6 million pounds of cargo.

Xi'an Xianyang International Airport is one of China's 10 largest airports, county officials said. Xi'an, near Beijing, has a population of 8 million to 10 million, they said.