Southwest flies Into No. 3 Spot, But Pittsburgh Airport Traffic Lags

Aug. 9--Southwest Airlines is growing quickly at Pittsburgh International Airport, picking up nearly 10,000 passengers in June and becoming the region's third busiest carrier overall.

Only long dominant US Airways and Delta Air Lines carried more travelers in June than Southwest, which launched service in Pittsburgh in May with 10 flights a day to Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.

Southwest came out of the gate as the airport's fourth-largest carrier, but moved past United Airlines for third in June with a busy month that included an additional 9,844 travelers.

"I think Pittsburgh really embraced the unique service Southwest provides," said JoAnn Jenny, spokeswoman for the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

In all, Southwest carried 67,104 passengers in June, according to statistics released yesterday by the authority.

Despite numerous cutbacks over the last four years, US Airways remained top dog, with 605,881 passengers, followed by Delta with 71,526, a 3.5 percent increase over June 2004.

While US Airways continues to cut back -- its Pittsburgh traffic was down 40 percent in June compared with the same month last year -- the total number of passengers flown by all other carriers at Pittsburgh International is growing.

Together, those airlines nearly doubled the number of passengers they carried, from 280,726 in June 2004 to 416,238 this year. Jenny attributed the jump to the arrival of Southwest and two other low-fare carriers, Hooters Air and Independence Air, within the last year.

As a result, US Airways is losing its once-mighty grip on operations at Pittsburgh International. At one time, it carried 89 percent of all traffic from the airport. By April, that had fallen to 63.1 percent. In June, US Airways was at 59.2 percent, meaning that other carriers were hauling nearly 41 percent of all travelers.

"Pittsburgh really has been a market that's been overpriced for a very long time. This is the first season we've had some of the best fares in recent history. So I think people are really embracing that and taking advantage of it," Jenny said.

But the surges in passenger traffic by other carriers still have not been able to offset the declining numbers by US Airways, which has eliminated Pittsburgh as a hub and sharply reduced the amount of connecting traffic through the airport.

Even with the gains by other airlines, overall traffic for June, at 1 million passengers, was down 20.8 percent compared with the same month last year. Year to date, traffic is off 24.2 percent.

Still, the fast start bodes well for Southwest, which is adding a fifth nonstop flight to Philadelphia on Sept. 14. It also has announced, without releasing any details, that it is expecting to add more flights before the end of the year.

Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said the airline should be ready to unveil its plans in a month or so. She said they could involve a mix of new destinations and existing service enhancements, but that final decisions have not been made.

"Pittsburgh is performing outstandingly," she said. "It's been so strong for us, we'll be adding service before the end of the year. We've had outstanding load factors." She refused to discuss specific cities.

Eichinger said the Pittsburgh launch has been comparable, on a smaller scale, to Philadelphia, where the airline started with 14 flights to six cities in May 2004. That jumped to 46 daily nonstop flights to 17 cities in one year.

Nobody is expecting the same rapid growth here, but Eichinger said the starts in both cities, long dominated by US Airways, have been "equally as strong."

"It's nothing but good news for Pittsburgh," she said. "We're so thrilled with the reception we've gotten in Pittsburgh and the response we've gotten from our new customers there."