Hubris flies amok at Airport Authority

Hubris flies amok at Airport Authority

Despite repeated requests to do so, the Allegheny County Airport Authority has failed to document the claim that next year’s resumption of direct flights between Pittsburgh and London will have an economic impact of $57 million.

That claim was made by county Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald on July 25 with the announcement that British Airways would start up the flights in April 2019 after a two-decade absence. Pennsylvania taxpayers will subsidize those flights to the tune of $3 million over two years.

Fitzgerald’s office, contacted on July 27, could not provide documentation for the claim when queried in an e-mail. A spokeswoman “presumed” that the Airport Authority would have said documentation.

An authority spokesman, later that same day in another e-mail, said he would have to obtain the information from “our air service person” the week of July 29. No documentation to back the $57 million economic claim was forthcoming.

Following two follow-up e-mail requests – last Wednesday and Thursday – spokesman Bob Kerlik offered this late Friday morning (a week after the first request):

“I’ll circle back with our air service team today.”

No documentation had been provided as of Monday morning.

As noted previously, it’s more than odd that those who so readily touted such a large economic benefit cannot – or is it will not? — readily produce any documentation to support such a claim.

So, what might reasonable people conclude?

That no such documentation or any kind of independent study specific to this flight exists? If so, why would such a claim be made?

That, as was the case of with a claim of a $100 million-plus economic impact from British Airways flights to Nashville, the claim comes from the airline itself? If so, why would government officials rely on such a claim from a hardly independent source?

This is no trifling matter — government officials, imprudently expending millions of dollars in public money, making a claim of bountiful benefits but, when called into question, stalling to produce the supposed evidence.

But wait, there’s a brand-new example of this uneconomic flying hubris from the Airport Authority: It is spending more than half-a-million dollars — $560,000 – to subsidize two China Eastern Airlines charter flights with a tour operator.

The first was a Pittsburgh-to-Shanghai flight last Friday. The second will be a Shanghai-to-Pittsburgh flight this Saturday. As the Post-Gazette further reported last week, the flights were only 30 percent booked combined.

And there are two additional kickers.

First, that anemic booking total came after a year of trying to sell the flights.

Second, some of those coming to Pittsburgh on the Aug. 11 flight are reported to be college students heading back to school; they would have been traveling here anyway.

Simply put, it is not now, nor has it ever been, in the proper purview of government to become any kind of perverted alms-giver to those alms-unworthy enterprises whose default position is to off-load any amount of financial risk that, in pursuit of profit, they alone should bear.

That Allegheny County officials keep insisting otherwise reflects quite poorly on their judgment. A public so repeatedly despoiled should take great umbrage at so consistently being treated as rubes.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).