Pittsburgh cials pledged yesterday to compete vigorously for a new $25 million US Airways flight operations center that could be built in either Charlotte, N.C., Phoenix or Pittsburgh, employing as many as 600.
"We are going to try like heck," said Allegheny County Airport Authority executive director Kent George.
US Airways needs only one center to control its flights worldwide but it currently has two, in Pittsburgh and Phoenix, the result of a merger last year between the old US Airways and Tempe, Ariz.-based America West Airlines.
The competition for a new, consolidated structure to be built in 2008 or 2009 officially began Monday, when US Airways sent letters to the three cities asking that any proposals be submitted by Oct. 15.
The fear, of course, is that Pittsburgh could lose more airline jobs as a result of the decision, which is expected in February, and add to the list of almost 10,000 US Airways employees cut from the local ranks since 2001.
The Pittsburgh center employs 450 people at RIDC Park West, an office park near Pittsburgh International Airport. The building -- a longtime nerve center of the airline -- is a holdover from the days when Pittsburgh was US Airways' largest hub, with more than 542 daily flights and 12,700 employees. It now has 164 daily flights and 2,800 local employees.
Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato said he will not go into the competition with an open checkbook but pledged that local leaders will put together a proposal that "keeps us competitive with other cities" for the work.
US Airways told local officials this week it wants a new, single-story building of 60,000 to 75,000 square feet, with 6 acres of land and room to expand by another 3 acres if needed. The building should be low profile and high security.
US Airways also wants to know if "there are tax abatements or other incentives that would make one location preferable to another" -- including "reduced building and equipment costs" and "operating expenses," the letter said.
Last fall, a union official briefed by the airline said there was a "90 percent" chance the center would end up in Phoenix, resulting in the closure of the Pittsburgh center and hundreds of local job losses.
But US Airways executive vice president Al Crellin assured employees in a letter issued yesterday that "we have not decided on a site as yet, and any decision that we make will be based on a combination of factors -- these incentives, the best location for employees, and most importantly, the efficient, safe operation of the airline."
Pittsburgh's location in the East could help its cause -- flights often begin each day at 5 a.m., which is 2 a.m. in Phoenix, forcing employees out there to wake well before dawn.
"It seems ludicrous to be (putting) this thing on the West Coast when probably 75 percent of the flight activity is literally on the East Coast," said Bill Lauer, a local airline analyst.
Finding the land in Pittsburgh will not be a problem, Mr. George and Mr. Onorato said.
The airport authority owns thousands of acres near the airport and has embarked on a major effort to transform that land into "shovel-ready" sites. It predicts that 300 acres will be available for development within 24 months.
Of course, Charlotte is also along the East Coast, also has lots of suburban land available for development and happens to be US Airways' largest hub.
"It comes down to a very simple dollars and cents issue," said Mr. Lauer, the local airline analyst. "It is going to be, 'Where is the best deal?' "
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