Pittsburgh has made big headlines over the last five years as they try to grow their footprint back from near obsolescence. However, as announcement after announcement comes from Steel City, the airport is quietly losing routes too.
Delta Cancels Paris Service, Doesn’t Actually Mention It
Delta, using their patented destination dartboard where they will seemingly try flights from anywhere to anywhere, had a direct flight to Paris 5x weekly on a seasonal basis. This expanded to daily and year-round service during various points in its nine-year history. Delta recently announced a series of new flights across the pond and some frequency increases for proven routes. In their announcement, they never mention Pittsburgh. Here’s the link, go ahead and search the page, Pittsburgh is never mentioned.
There is, however, the termination of the service on the included map. It’s tiny, in gray and joins Newark as another unannounced casualty. It doesn’t say if this is a seasonal termination or if it is going away for good. The headline of this release from Delta is: Delta’s next global blockbuster: More trans-Atlantic flights from Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, and New York City. They are quick to talk about the blockbuster, not so much about the flops.
OneJet Has Been Struggling
Pittsburgh has not been shy in offering incentives for new service. I love that. They are betting that once airlines try the routes and Pittsburghers realize they can fly direct on new airlines, they will fill seats. I unabashedly loved OneJet. I interviewed the CEO, Matthew Maguire. The airline tried a variety of different routes from Pittsburgh and some of them made a lot of sense while other obvious choices went missing. I mentioned to Mr. Maguire the tremendous cost flying short haul distances from Pittsburgh to Charlotte and Philadelphia, distances just far enough to consume an entire day for a traveling business person when driving a car. Routinely, prices between the two cities range from $400-800 for the less than one hour flight time. The carrier was more focused on other business cities and who am I to question it, I am not an airline CEO.
Over the course of the last couple of years, the carrier grew to about a dozen cities with some coming on and others flittering off the map. Then, a recent merger with Ultimate Jet Charter seemed to show that not only was the carrier growing, but was looking to add larger equipment with longer legs. That deal, unfortunately, fell apart.
Two weeks ago, news emerged that the Allegheny Airport Authority (say that five times fast) was suing OneJet for three-quarters of a million dollars. The carrier had shrunk to just two routes out of Steel City and according to PIT had broken their accord. They have since ceased all operations for a period of eight weeks while they change some FAA paperwork. Brett Snyder (Cranky Flier – if you don’t read him already, you should), posted a detailed account of the demise of one of my favorite carriers.
OneJet intended to restart their Tennessee operations in Nashville and add Memphis from Pittsburgh in October but had not yet made progress to that end. I hope they find a way to make it work or find an investor that sees the vision and wants to grow the model – their product was amazing and so was their service.
Concern for WOW Air
I have two concerns for WOW Air’s service to Pittsburgh International. One of them based on a recent report and the other is anecdotal. WOW Air recently disclosed that they are facing some difficult financial headwinds. Growing as fast as they did, it makes sense. The fares seem to be all over the board with some of those wonderful $99 fares that they tend to offer to Iceland, $149 to mainland Europe, but mostly they seem to be higher generally. Does this speak to load factor? Maybe. But if the carrier is struggling, where will they cut first, St. Louis and Pittsburgh, or New York and Oakland?
Anecdotally speaking, I have asked around. Many of my co-workers weren’t aware they could get direct flights to Europe for as little as WOW Air sometimes sells them. They spend $400-500 on trips to the Caribbean coastal cities instead of $300 to Barcelona or the Canaries. WOW Air has good representation on signage within the airport, but if you are to ask someone in Pittsburgh about flights to Europe, they have no idea how inexpensive it can be or how many direct options they have. That’s not good. WOW Air is already less recognizable than British Airways, how will they compete once flights to London begin next year?
To know Pittsburgh is to know professional sports. WOW and PIT shoud conduct halftime giveaways for $99 in cash to lucky fans at Heinz field during Steelers games or at Penguins hockey games (during either of their two halftimes) to create great brand awareness. This would inform fans of both their direct flight options to Iceland or one-stop service to mainland European destinations and their phenomenal price points which are all too familiar to readers of travel blogs. The average traveler in Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo and that is something that needs to be fixed if they are to continue long haul service and attract more.
I would hate to see this service go.
Condor added flights three years ago to Frankfurt, the only competition on trans-Atlantic service in decades. Alaska Airlines has added a route to Seattle, Southwest added seasonal service to Cancun joining Delta and American for Saturday routes during the summer season. This summer marked a charter from China Eastern on a subsidized contract with an insane guarantee on a stupefyingly large aircraft (777-300ER). Qatar Airways has added four times weekly cargo service. Perhaps the most exciting for my family is the recent announcement of a 4x weekly service from Pittsburgh to London Heathrow on a British Airways 787-8.
As you might have guessed, announcements for new service receive fanfare, terminations don’t garner much attention. However, as British Airways gets set to link London with Pittsburgh, Delta says goodbye. On balance, the seats may remain the same as Delta operated a 757-200 5-7x weekly vs. 4x weekly BA service on the larger 787-8. The airport’s addition to Seattle will put another 150 or so seats to a single unserved destination (Seattle) while smaller service from OneJet erases 10 destinations from the map (many of which were only served by OneJet).
How To Grow Sustainably
Pittsburgh International Airport happens to be home to a recently discovered natural gas reserve and the highly prized real estate underneath the vast airport complex particularly valuable. The airport received an upfront bonus plus drilling proceeds that should net near $500 million for the airport over 20 years. They should absolutely play fast and loose and try to get some new service to stick. This is in addition to other revenue like gambling taxes that funded OneJet’s contract.
The Allegheny Airport Authority CEO, Christina Cassotis, has grown the airport from just over 30 destinations to nearly 80 in less than five years. International flights were limited to nearby Toronto and seasonal service from Delta to Paris now offer direct flights to Montreal, Reykjavik, Frankfurt, London, and Cancun plus charter service to several Caribbean destinations sold by Apple Vacations.
There’s room to grow further, but I think Pittsburgh has reached a stage where that growth should be done more carefully. I would love to see flights from AeroMexico, for example, but Volaris is a smarter target. WestJet makes more sense to Vancouver than Air Canada. Hub airlines need the feed though a oneworld carrier like British Airways could probably make it work given the airport’s legacy with US Airways and a decent presence by American. China Eastern, however, would have to fly big equipment a long way with hundreds of seats to fill in order to make it work. Pittsburgh is an A321 city if there ever was one.
But there’s nothing wrong with that. Spirit or Frontier could compete with charter operators to sunny destinations outside of the state of Florida, namely, the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, and Aruba. Service to Europe on smaller equipment like A320-Neo/A321 aircraft could make sense for Aer Lingus (who recently mentioned they would like to do more direct trans-Atlantic flying) as well as Manchester, Copenhagen and beyond. Mexico is a pain to get to from Pittsburgh unless, a) you fly to Cancun and only want to leave and come home on Saturdays, b) only travel in the summer, or c) don’t mind paying a premium and flying a connection.
Pittsburgh should focus on adding routes from those who already have a strong presence and creating a focus city for one of their carriers. It won’t be Delta or United, they just don’t have enough of the market to build on. American, however, could have service from Dublin, London, and Cancun, with hub traffic to Philadelphia, Charlotte, New York (JFK and LaGuardia), Chicago, and Dallas. They have crew bases in the city, a lounge (yes it’s tired but it’s there) and almost the entire B terminal in the airport with room to grow gates in the same concourse. It checks most of the boxes and while PHL is across the state and gets all of the attention, what would stop American from receiving the same subsidies for growth that enabled others to try flights there? Their $100 million boondoggle that was the Chicago-Beijing route hemorrhaged money, certainly feed from other markets to Tokyo via Pittsburgh makes more sense. Airport fees in Pittsburgh would be remarkably less than Chicago for one, there is no competition from myriad carriers in the Windy City for another. The aircraft could be a smaller 787, the service less frequent and the route guaranteed as opposed to a money pit. Onward connections in both directions could make that work. For the rest of America that lives outside of mega-airports like JFK, O’Hare, LAX and San Francisco, passengers expect to connect somewhere, most really don’t care where that connection is made.
Without onward connections and existing feed, it’s hard to see how a major carrier could add the city without financial help and that’s the real challenge. So either convince American to add new routes for an incentive and build up the feed to the city, or focus on point-to-point that deliver value to flyers.
What do you think? Is Pittsburgh International growing more than they are shrinking? What is an airport like Pittsburgh to do to gain further service enhancements?