Pittsburgh Airport Aims to Expand Nonstop European Flights

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.

September's merger of East Coast-heavy US Airways with West Coast-based America West Airlines could bring changes, Zapinski said -- eventually.

"I think the new airline is looking for things to stabilize," he said.

"As they more fully understand the benefits of the Pittsburgh market and the strength of the asset that they have in their base in Pittsburgh International Airport, that will only be good for us." George, airport board Chairman Glenn Mahone and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato met with US Airways executives in Phoenix on Friday to discuss the airline's intentions for Pittsburgh, including international flights.

The decision to remove the European flights was made by old US Airways management, so would be reconsidered by the post-merger management, said Phil Gee, US Airways spokesman. But the decision was made because the old US Airways found the route unprofitable; if it isn't profitable, it wouldn't be plausible.

Plus, all the airline's wide-bodied planes, which are used on international flights, are allotted to other routes, he said.

While US Airways' goals in Pittsburgh are still unfolding, local intentions are crystallized.

"International flight is Numero Uno," Onorato said. "It's the one missing piece right now at the airport."

Many companies here have ties to the Old World. A March survey by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance showed 70 German-owned companies in the Pittsburgh area and 42 rooted in the United Kingdom.

So the loss of London flights, most recently seasonal, and daily nonstops to Frankfurt, Germany, have pinched productivity. Local business travelers commonly spend about half a day more on each end of overseas trips because of connections in Philadelphia, Detroit or Newark, N.J.

"It would be great to get back to Germany, but England works also," Onorato said.

Though seven-day-a-week service would be the ideal, Onorato said needs probably could be met with four-times-a-week overseas routes. The total abandonment of US Airways' overseas flights from Pittsburgh is still somewhat puzzling.

"Why didn't they consider a reduced schedule to try to meet the business travel needs, while trying to tap into the leisure market?" posed Cherif Kamel, purchasing director of global services at Nova Chemicals in Moon Township.

In establishing routes, airlines look for strong business support and a vibrant local market, said Eric Ford, managing consultant with Eclat Consulting of Virginia, which has advised the Pittsburgh airport and US Airways.

In the hub years, connecting traffic boosted Pittsburgh's numbers. But with local travel up, the US Airways situation stabilized and business support evident, Pittsburgh's chances for landing a nonstop overseas route may be improved, Onorato said.

"We're right on the edge of the numbers that make it work," he said. "We have a couple of leads out there."

"I think we've got a viable business proposition," Zapinski echoed.