At what price might British Airways return to PIT?

At what price might British Airways return to PIT?

There is a bona fide indicator that British Airways might, in fact, be planning to restore its flights to Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) next year. That, after a nearly two-year suspension of newly returned flights (and that, following a two-decade absence).

That indication comes in a London Air Travel (londonairtravel.com) dispatch of Nov. 1:

“A route network published by IAG [the week of Oct. 24] also indicates that BA may relaunch Portland and reinstate Pittsburgh again next year.”

If so, exactly when remains unclear.

IAG is the acronym for International Airlines Group, which, according to its website (https://www.iairgroup.com/en/the-group/iag-overview) “combines leading airlines in Ireland, Spain and the UK, enabling them to enhance their presences in the aviation market while retaining their individual brand’s operations.”

The news comes as the United States, effective Nov. 1, ended a travel ban on international visitors because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While not citing the IAG route network report, the Post-Gazette reported on Nov. 9 that officials at PIT are “hoping” the end of that travel ban will “help to boost prospects” for the already subsidy-backed flights to resume.

It was on March 15, 2020, that BA pulled the plug on those renewed flights to PIT. That was less than a year after, and with grand fanfare, that the airline returned to the Findlay Township airport after many years.

Do remember, it was nearly a year ago that London Air Travel reported that the suspension of BA flights to PIT from London’s Heathrow Airport were “permanent.”

At that time the website considered the BA/PIT flights “a marginal long-haul route,” which, as we noted at the time, more than suggests that the subsidized flights were not performing.

Now, you’ll recall that it took public grease to make that 2019 restoration of the BA flights a reality — $3 million in subsidies over two years. The first-year subsidy was paid.

That said, perhaps it’s time to hoist another red flag about subsidies, considering the verbiage of an Airport Authority official used in last week’s P-G story.

“It’s important that this flight succeeds and we continue to work with them to determine the right time to resume,” said spokesman Bob Kerlik.

So, is that merely an indication that if and once BA flights resume, the already-negotiated second half of that subsidy ($1.5 million) still will be honored/paid?

Or is it a larger indication of more subsidies to come? If the latter is the case, it should be a nonstarter.

Interestingly, the normally rah-rah-sis-boom-bah-ing airline analysts set is not exactly hopping on the resuming-BA-flights-to-PIT bandwagon.

William Swelbar, the chief industry analyst at the Swelbar-Zhong consultancy in Virginia, told the P-G’s Mark Belko that consumer preferences likely will play a role and that might not be good news for Pittsburgh.

Imagine that.

He told Belko that the fact that the Pittsburgh-London route generates a lot of business trips doesn’t help, given the fact that such travel has fallen dramatically during the pandemic.

The unspoken here is that it might not rebound, given alternatives (think Zoom) to expensive international air travel (that, by the way, typically subsidizes tourist air travel).

And quite tellingly, Belko also points out that “British Airways has yet to sign the new seven-year lease that will help pay for the airport’s $1.4 billion modernization, although it still has time to do so.”

BA currently has a two-year lease at PIT that’s scheduled to expire on Dec. 31.

All this said, the bottom line here remains as the Allegheny Institute stated it three years ago (in Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 31), questioning the deal’s suspect claims of grand economic benefits:

Given that “the most probable effects of the subsidy will be to damage competitors while increasing the net outflow of resources from the region, it is hard to see any upside to handing over tax dollars to the airline.”

Then as now. No subsidies should have been given to British Airways (or any airline) then. And, clearly, no new public subsidies should even be considered now.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).