Pittsburgh Wants International Air Service

Business and political leaders agree Pittsburgh needs nonstop international air service.

But even with more than 260 foreign-based companies in Western Pennsylvania, a problem has been getting an airline -- any airline -- to agree.

Area leaders have made progress in recruiting such top-flight discount air carriers as Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue to make up some of the significant loss of domestic air service in the wake US Airways' downsizing of operations at Pittsburgh International Airport.

However, its been since late in 2004 the airport last could travelers a nonstop connection across the Atlantic.

That chagrins people such as Elie Saad, vice president at Lanxess Corp., a German-owned maker of chemicals and polymers.

Saad, a frequent flyer, is among dozens of Lanxess employees who must take flights toPhiladelphia, New York, Newark, Charlotte, and even Chicago and Detroit to connect to nonstop flights overseas.

"It can cost you a whole day's worth of work," said Saad.

"It's a huge problem," said Randall Dearth, chief executive for Lanxess, a spinoff from Bayer AG, with its North American headquarters in Findlay. It is one of 70 German-owned companies in the region, who collectively employ about 9,500 people.

When Pittsburgh had direct flights to Germany, the company's employees could leave Pittsburgh in mid-afternoon for a flight to Frankfurt. Now, they must leave by 10 or 11 a.m., which is "a big inconvenience," Dearth said.

It also results in lost productivity, according to Lanxess officials. The company's employees lost about 1,300 hours of precious work during the 260 flights they made overseas in 2005.

If those employees worked in Cincinnati, they would have no such problem.

Cincinnati is a similarly-sized city. There, however, Delta Airlines operates nonstop flights to London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris and Rome.

There is a simple reason, said airline industry expert Robert W. Mann.

Summed up in one word, it's "hub," said Mann, head of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc., of Long Island, N.Y.

Mann notes that The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is Delta's second largest hub airport, a claim Pittsburgh no longer can make about US Airways.

"The difference there is it's still operating as a hub; it has substantial feed (flights from other Delta-served cities) into Cincinnati, and that's what keeps it going. It's not Cincinnati originating business that makes the difference, its the feed from surrounding cities that use Cincinnati as a connecting point," Mann said.

"What has happened at Pittsburgh is that a lot of those spokes were removed by US Airways. What remains is a lot of service, but spread among a lot of carriers. So there's no single carrier that controls Pittsburgh's feed to the extent that US Airways once did, and that's really the difference."

Delta boasts it is the fastest growing major U.S.-based carrier in international service, with 15 new routes announced, added or applied since Jan. 1, 2005. It flies to Europe, India and Israel.

By summer, it expects to be flying 51 daily departures to 29 different cities in those countries, including the five from Cincinnati. Pittsburgh is not on Delta's expansion list.

The airline does not disclose financial or occupancy data about specific flights, said spokeswoman Gina Laughlin. She said the fact that the flights from Cincinnati to Europe are expanding is an indication they are performing satisfactorily.

Pittsburgh lost nonstop flights to Europe in November 2004, when US Airways ended service to Frankfurt. It also used to have nonstop service to London and to Paris.

In March, US Airways officials said they don't believe it is financially feasible to fly from Pittsburgh International now.

Scott Kirby, executive vice president of sales and marketing for US Airways, said a Frankfurt flight would need to generate between $70 million and $80 million annually.

However, "There is just not that much revenue coming out of Pittsburgh," he added.

"If we can make it work -- fine," said Doug Parker, the airline's chief executive. "But we also have a problem with aircraft (being able to fly the route)."

German-based carrier Lufthansa has taken a similar stance, telling Pittsburgh area leaders there is not enough traffic to justify a new European flight, said Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

But that doesn't mean its time to give up. Onorato said recently the effort to get some type of nonstop European air service is his top economic development priority.

"We all believe we can get this done," said Onorato. He is working with the Allegheny County Airport Authority, and the Regional Air Service Partnership, a coalition of 50 area business leaders brought together by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development to spearhead efforts to help the region attract replacement air service.

The coalition talks to "three or four" air carriers regularly, according to local leaders. But there are reasons why the process can be slow, said F. Michael Langley, chief executive of the Allegheny Conference.

"Airlines don't make these decisions overnight," he said, adding that companies often take two or more years to do so. Such decisions also may be delayed by factors such as the availability of planes to fly a route, or gates open for use at international airports

Local leaders might take heart in a similar effort waged by business and community leaders in Portland and neighboring Vancouver, Wash., after Delta stopped its nonstop service to Japan.

Not only did that effort find success in 2002 when Lufthansa agreed to start nonstop service from Portland International Airport to Frankfurt, but over the next two years it also helped convince Northwest Airlines to provide a flight to Japan and Mexicana Air to start service to Mexico.

"One of the key points ... was development of what we called a travel commitment" said Steve Johnson, spokesman for the Port of Portland, one of the partners in the community coalition. "Through our partnership we were able to raise almost $11 million in advanced commitment and pledges from local corporations to support the new nonstop service," he said.

Local leaders have made similar pledges of business in hopes of convincing airlines to fly here.

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