US Airways ditches 40 flights, 19 cities

US Airways passengers will have 40 fewer daily flights from Pittsburgh to 19 fewer cities come January as a result of yet another round of service cuts announced Wednesday.

Saying it is badly losing money here, the airline slashed Pittsburgh's daily departures to 68 from 108, effective Jan. 6. US Airways will drop daily nonstops to six cities, including Chicago, Denver and Toronto. Also, its express affiliates are expected to stop flying their smaller aircraft to 13 smaller cities, the airline said.

"Unfortunately, our ability to operate profitably from Pittsburgh has been sharply eroded over the past few years, and the hub lost more than $40 million over the past 12 months alone," CEO Doug Parker said.

Downsizing by US Airways, which declared bankruptcy twice since 2002, created opportunities for low-cost carriers. Competitors who entered the Pittsburgh market "picked our most profitable routes to go after," said airline spokesman Phil Gee, such as Pittsburgh-Boston, which JetBlue Airways started serving in June 2006.

"In many cases in the past, we were able to subsidize less profitable routes," Gee said. But with fewer Pittsburgh flights overall, that's no longer possible. The average Pittsburgh fare for a domestic flight is now $136, versus $144 at Philadelphia and $162 at Charlotte, he said.

Industry experts said they believe competing carriers might be interested in filling some service voids.

"I think it's highly likely other carriers will come in," said Robert Mann Jr., an airline consultant at R.W. Mann & Co. Inc. on Long Island. "It makes it more attractive for people like AirTran and JetBlue to increase their capacity or flights over time."

But, he said, "you might have to stop and change planes at a hub somewhere."

The flight reductions mean about 360 baggage handlers and gate agents for US Airways' express carrier PSA Airlines will lose their jobs in Pittsburgh on Jan. 5, the unionized workers were told yesterday. If they can't transfer to other US Airways cities, they would be out of work, a Teamsters official said.

In addition, 100 US Airways customer service jobs will be transferred to other cities.

Another nearly 500 local airline workers -- 182 pilots and 312 flight attendants -- will no longer be based at Pittsburgh International Airport, where the flight crew base closes in January. If they continue to live here, they must fly as passengers to another US Airways city to start their day as crew members on, for instance, a Philadelphia-Dallas flight.

"Look at the trend: They've been downsizing for the last two years," said Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

US Airways cut Pittsburgh flights from 245 a day in fall 2004 to 210 in July 2005 and to 145 a day in January.

"This is what competition is going to give us," said Onorato, noting discount newcomers, such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, have entered Pittsburgh in that time.

Competitors such as Frontier Airlines or United or American airlines might fill the Denver and Chicago voids, said Mike Mooney, senior vice president of The Boyd Group, an airline consultancy in Evergreen, Colo. He also mentioned Air Canada as a possible substitute for Toronto service.

"This will probably encourage JetBlue to remain in Pittsburgh, after they said their initial business was relatively weak," Mooney said.

"We certainly will evaluate these schedule changes of US Airways," said Bryan Baldwin, spokesman for JetBlue. It flies from Pittsburgh to New York and Boston. "But right now, we won't have any plans for growth."

"Now that US Airways has blinked, I'd expect other airlines to initiate or expand service to take advantage," said Allegheny County Airport Authority Chief Operating Officer Brad Penrod, who succeeds Kent George as CEO on Friday.

"I'm not happy about it. I wish US Airways could have made it work," said attorney Dan Booker, who is chairman of the Regional Air Service Partnership, which tries to lure airlines to Pittsburgh International Airport. "But other airlines have shown they can work well in Pittsburgh, and profitably."

AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said: "We will be keeping our eye on Pittsburgh." The airline continues to add planes to its fleet through 2010, "so we are in a position to grow in any of the markets we serve," she said.

"Pittsburgh is definitely a good market for us," said Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger. "This definitely opens some possibilities for us, but when and where has yet to be determined."

In addition to dropping Chicago O'Hare, Denver and Toronto, US Airways will eliminate nonstop Pittsburgh service to Erie and Norfolk, Va., on Jan. 6. Service to Charleston, W.Va., ends on Nov. 3.

Vaughn Gilbert, spokesman for Westinghouse Electric Co., was surprised by the elimination of US Airways' Chicago flights, noting that he and other Westinghouse personnel just flew to that city Tuesday on business on a US Airways express flight.

"The flight appeared to have every seat filled," Gilbert said. "We have a lot of business in the Midwest, and Chicago is an important city."