Dismantling Pittsburgh: Death of an airline hub

Flying through one of my favorite airports is increasingly difficult these days. The recent US Airways announcement to pull down capacity yet again at their moribund Pittsburgh hub will reduce connecting passenger traffic to a trickle.

Although most business travelers prefer non-stop travel, when a connection was unavoidable, Pittsburgh was always at the top of my list. Opened in 1992 the midfield terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport is an extremely well designed facility for connecting passengers. Seventy-five gates and four runways set on spacious grounds assured that Pittsburgh International Airport did not suffer the gridlock and congestion that plague much larger hub airports like Atlanta Hartsfield, Chicago O'Hare, or Dallas-Fort Worth. Now with fewer than 250 departures per day, the Pittsburgh airport has become severely underutilized.

Although the best connection is usually one where you can hop from airplane to airplane with no waiting, if you are going to be stuck at an airport for a while Pittsburgh is a pretty good choice. The airport includes more than 100 shops and restaurants, many of which are clustered in a shopping mall-like atrium at the junction of the quadrangle of concourses. Stores like Brooks Brothers, Brookstone, Godiva Chocolatier, General Nutrition Center, Land's End, PGA Tour Shop and Victoria's Secret are more likely to be found at your neighborhood shopping mall than an airport setting.

For someone who loathes the ordeal of shopping, dispensing with that chore while changing airplanes was a tremendous timesaver over the years. Before US Airways dismantled their hub I used to route myself through Pittsburgh whenever my wardrobe needed an upgrade to avoid the traffic, the crowds, and the endless search for a parking space at the mall.

But alas, as US Airways razes its Pittsburgh hub it's unlikely I'll find myself connecting there again. Although other airlines have increased their Pittsburgh service to fill the void, and perhaps another airline may eventually designate Pittsburgh as a "focus city", it is highly improbable that the airport will ever again offer an extensive hub like the one US Airways ran for decades.

The US Airways Pittsburgh hub has actually been in decline for years. US Airways says it lost $40 million there last year. As recently as the year 2000, US Airways and its regional affiliates operated over 500 daily departures to more than 110 destinations at their Pittsburgh hub. With the latest capacity reduction, fewer than 70 departures to 21 destinations will remain.

Though the airport once handled 20 million passengers annually, only 20% of that traffic originated or terminated in Pittsburgh. The vast majority of passengers were simply connecting to another flight – almost always a connection on US Airways. With the current capacity pull-down, however, most of those connecting passengers will now be rerouted through other airline hubs in the region, such as Philadelphia or Charlotte if they stay on US Airways, or through places like Cincinnati, Cleveland or Detroit if they switch to other carriers.

Although airlines lose money for many reasons, it was the arrival of low-cost carriers (LCCs) beginning in 2000 that precipitated US Airways' demise at Pittsburgh. Though some LCCs, like ATA, Independence Air, and Vanguard Airlines only briefly flashed upon the scene, larger and more powerful airlines like AirTran, Southwest, and JetBlue are now entrenched and poised for further expansion at Pittsburgh. Over the last seven years LCCs have increased their collective market share in Pittsburgh from 1% to 17%.

If there is a silver lining for Pittsburgh-bound travelers, while flight schedules have taken a tailspin, average airfares at Pittsburgh declined by 27% since 2000 according to an independent study (PDF) commissioned by the airport.

In 2000, Pittsburgh had the fourth highest average airfares among the top 120 markets in the nation according to the DOTand Pittsburgh passengers paid a 37% premium over travelers in other cities. By the beginning of 2007 Pittsburgh had dropped to 71st place in the DOT ranking and Pittsburgh passengers now enjoy airfares that are 7% lower than the national average. With the higher cost structure inherent in operating a hub, US Airways could no longer compete at this lower price point.

In 2000, US Airways enjoyed an 87% market share of all traffic in, out, and through Pittsburgh. Now that market share is less than 40%, and, only two years after entering the market, Southwest is now the number 2 airline in Pittsburgh carrying 11% of all passengers.

With no sizable hub operation, Pittsburgh has lost all non-stop service to places like San Diego, Seattle, and Orange County where US Airways was the sole operator. Other major routes like Los Angeles and San Francisco, which once had several daily non-stop departures, are left with only a single flight per day. And those traveling to scores of regional destinations like Albany, Allentown, Altoona, or Buffalo will have to connect through other hubs to reach those destinations. During its glory days, US Airways even offered non-stop flights from Pittsburgh to several European cities, but that is all gone now.

While most "spoke" cities lose service in the death of an airline hub, in some cases other airlines fill the void by increasing service from the defunct hub to their own hubs. AirTran replaced US Airways on the Atlanta route and Delta Connection added several flights as well. In Chicago, Southwest now fills the gap created by US Airways' exit from that market. In many cases, flights to and from Pittsburgh are carrying passengers who now must connect through another airline's hub to reach a destination that is no longer served by a direct flight from Pittsburgh.

The study commissioned by the Pittsburgh Airport believes that the lower fares have increased local traffic (originating or terminating in Pittsburgh) by approximately 360,000 people per year. This increase is comprised of passengers who were formerly driving to other airports — such as relatively nearby Cleveland or Columbus — to obtain lower fares as well as new traffic stimulated by those lower fares.

But ironically those lower fares now enjoyed by Pittsburgh passengers come at the cost of greater inconvenience and time spent connecting somewhere else or waiting around for that one remaining non-stop flight per day. And while lower airfares and reduced corporate travel spending bills tend to attract businesses to an area, corporations also want to locate in a city where their employees and visitors have easy access to many other cities and spend less unproductive time in transit. Such is the money vs. time tradeoff that occurs when LCCs infiltrate a once-robust hub.

For as long as I can remember, US Airways has been synonymous with Pittsburgh. In my lifetime the airline name has been through several incarnations from Allegheny to USAir to its current identity, but now that Pittsburgh hub is no more and I guess I'll have to find another place to shop.

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Send David your feedback: David Grossman is a veteran business traveler and former airline industry executive. He writes a column every other week on topics of interest and concern to business travelers. E-mail him at travel@usatoday.com.