Pittsburgh Airport Travel Increased Since US Airways Pulled Flights

Communities think of the loss of an airline hub as a doomsday scenario less traffic and less prestige.

But in Pittsburgh, the opposite happened this year: After US Airways pulled half its flights, local travel increased sharply.

Since US Airways announced last fall that it would stop using Pittsburgh International Airport as a hub, five discount airlines came rushing in and bigger legacy airlines beefed up service.

Fares plunged: Prices for round-trip flights from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, for example, fell to $186 from $680. So people travel more.

While the number of connecting customers is down sharply at Pittsburgh, the number of passengers beginning trips there was up 12 percent in September compared with last year, according to the airport's manager, the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

Pittsburgh's experience shows the price many communities across the country pay for having an airline hub at their local airport.

While these airports offer the convenience of hundreds of nonstop flights to scores of destinations, hubs also suppress local travel.

That is because, until recently, low-cost competitors shied away from battling bigger network airlines at their dominant hubs. The lack of competition led to high ticket prices that stifled local travel.

A 2001 U.S. Department of Transportation study of hubs found that travelers in hub markets paid 41 percent more than travelers from competitive markets. Charlotte, N.C., Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh had the highest hub prices, the study found.

In the past several years, things have begun to change. Discount carriers with strong balance sheets have made inroads at many hubs.

In response, incumbent airlines began cutting business-travel fares. For example, Delta Air Lines cut fares at its Cincinnati hub, American Airlines cut fares in Miami and US Airways moved to match Southwest Airlines pricing in Philadelphia.

One of the most drastic post-hub changes has been in the price of a Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia flight. That route was priced at $680 round-trip when US Airways had a monopoly, encouraging many travelers to drive the five hours instead.

Then the price plunged to a maximum of $186 round-trip when Southwest began flying to Pittsburgh in May. Many more people now fly the route.

To keep up with the demand, US Airways now has a dozen daily flights in each direction between the two cities, up from eight in January. Southwest has six daily flights each way.

"The benefits of a hub come at a very high price," said Kent George, executive director of the Allegheny County Airport Authority. "Now we have the good old American free-market system responding to demand."

Still, there have been hassles for travelers and the community. Pittsburgh has lost nonstop flights to 50 cities as US Airways dropped to about 200 flights a day from a peak of more than 400.

The airport's total traffic, which peaked at more than 10 million passengers boarding planes in 1997, will be about 6 million this year. And the retrenchment has meant massive job losses at the airport, as employment at the airport has fallen to 3,500 from 11,500, George said.

To cope with the loss, the Pennsylvania Legislature pledged $150 million from gambling revenue over 10 years to pay for facilities such as gates that were abandoned by US Airways.

The airport is finding it can run a lot more economically when it doesn't have to grapple with the inefficiencies of a hub waves of planes coming in and leaving at the same time, followed by emptiness until the next wave. Instead of doing maintenance on runways in the middle of the night, for example, airport officials now close one of their four runways during the day and get work done cheaper.

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