Dec. 19--FINDLAY TWP. -- Oh, what a difference a year has made at Pittsburgh International Airport.
At this time last year, the airport was suffering aftershocks from the downsizing and dehubbing of US Airways in Pittsburgh. Officials were courting low-cost carriers, looking to fill gaps created by US Airways pullbacks.
A year later, airport officials aren't chasing any more airlines, said Kent George, executive director of the airport. Instead, they will try to draw nonstop European flights and beef up competition on monopolized domestic routes.
Earlier this year, Hooters landed with hoopla, though flights have been suspended December through March. Southwest Airlines, king of the low-cost carriers, arrived in May and, within six months, doubled its flights to 20 and solidly became the airport's No. 2 carrier. Nearly half of the airport's 13 airlines qualify as low-cost carriers.
For each of the last two years, local traffic has been breaking records.
"We must be doing something right," George said. Pain preceded the gain. US Airways had carried about 88 percent of the Pittsburgh traffic, George said. Although US Airways still dominated October's traffic statistics, it carried a record low 55 percent of Pittsburgh's travelers. The loss of a US Airways hub also affected connecting traffic and nonstop service.
Overall, the airport's connecting traffic has dropped from 60 percent of all passengers to 40 percent, George said.
"We've changed the way we've operated," George said, moving airlines to different gates for greater efficiency and turning former US Airways Express gates into an additional security checkpoint. While competition has increased, some routes have turned into casualties -including the esteemed European nonstop flights. George will focus his efforts on these shortcomings next year.
"When you trade off a hub, you trade off frequency of service and high costs," he said. "The trick is to get a mix on that frequency to meet the needs of the people you serve."
As a hub, Pittsburgh enjoyed 600 nonstop flights to 118 destinations, which some observers said weren't warranted in a city Pittsburgh's size. The airport still offers 38 nonstop destinations, Kent said, primarily on top business routes.
Still, Pittsburgh lost nonstop availability to two important business markets, San Diego and Manchester, N.H., a suburban Boston market, said Ken Zapinski, staff director of the Regional Air Service Partnership, a group of about 50 businesses unified on air travel concerns. A nonstop Kansas City flight was lost for a while, but Midwest Connect rejuvenated that route in October.
Next year, George will try to attract competition on monopolized Pittsburgh routes: Boston and New York LaGuardia, both US Airways; and Dallas, flown by American Airlines. Gaining competition could lower prices and add traffic.
Philadelphia, now a turf war between US Airways and Southwest, exemplifies how competition can spur growth, especially when the price shrank from about $500 round-trip to as low as $70. "You bring competition in on those routes, tickets go down and more people fly, so you're not talking about taking the same size pie and divvying it up," Zapinski said. "You can get a bigger pie." Now Zapinski has turned his sights to the West Coast.
"We're not happy with where things are on the West Coast service," Zapinski said. San Diego and Seattle were lost as direct destinations. The twice-a-day Los Angeles flights will be cut to once a day, and San Francisco will face a seasonal cut.
With the collapse of the US Airways hub and the emergence of such low-cost carriers as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue, flying from Pittsburgh is no longer through-the-roof expensive.
A four-year-long retrenchment in Pittsburgh has left Charlotte as the largest hub in the US Airways network, with more than 500 daily departures and 121 nonstop destinations.
Even with more than 260 foreign-based companies in Western Pennsylvania, a problem has been getting an airline to agree.
Of the $370,000 to be spent, $50,000 will be dedicated to advertising in Youngstown, Ohio, which is roughly midway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.