When the Allegheny County Airport Authority Board hired their new Airport Authority CEO in January 2015, there were high expectations regarding Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) and its passenger count. Since January 2015, the results appear to be modestly positive—passenger counts are up, though very slightly, as are the number of daily flights, and the number of nonstop destinations. But how do these results stack up against the performance at similarly sized airports?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ranks PIT as the nation’s 46th busiest airport based on 2014 enplanements, a spot it has held since 2010. In 2000, it ranked 24th, gradually sliding to 40th in 2006, before settling in at its current rank in 2010. In 2014 PIT had fewer enplanements than Southwest Florida (Fort Myers), San Antonio International, and Sacramento International. PIT did however have more enplanements than Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee (General Mitchell), and Columbus. While the FAA rankings are based on the number of enplanements, we will look at the total number of passengers (enplaned and deplaned) for the airports listed above over the last two years.
|San Antonio Int’l||44||8,369,628||8,507,459||1.65|
|General Mitchell Int’l||49||6,554,152||6,549,353||-0.07|
|Port Columbus Int’l||50||6,355,974||6,975,978||6.92|
As can be seen from the chart, PIT’s increase of 1.62 percent is the second lowest of these similarly sized airports, ahead of only Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International and just behind San Antonio International. However, PIT lags well behind Indianapolis with its 8.6 percent increase, Sacramento, Columbus (7 percent), and Cleveland-Hopkins (6.45 percent). Thus compared to this group of similarly sized airports, PIT’s gains are very meager.
According the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Traffic Statistics, the number of revenue passenger enplanements nationwide increased by 4.6 percent from 2014-2015. The growth rate for enplanements at PIT was only 1.34 percent—well behind the national rate.
Earlier Policy Briefs reported on PIT’s performance as it grappled with falling passenger counts after USAirways began downsizing operations in 2000. The fortunes of PIT were heavily tied to this hub airline that accounted for the overwhelming majority of passengers and flights. Of course, USAirways had many problems during the early 2000s including bankruptcies. Upon merging with American Airlines and adopting that name, the USAirways identity has officially disappeared altogether. In 2001, PIT hit a high total passenger count (enplaned and deplaned) for the new millennium of more than 19.94 million (the all-time high was set in 1997 at 20.7 million) before steadily falling throughout that first decade as USAirways dropped PIT as a hub. The airport’s low traffic mark since the loss of the hub came in 2013 when only 7.88 million passengers passed through PIT. Since then the growth has been minimal, over the last two years—1.46 percent in 2014 and 1.62 percent in 2015.
The loss of a major hub also meant the loss of flights and destinations served. As noted in news reports, at the hub’s heyday, there were 633 flights to 114 destinations. In January 2015 that number stood at 142 daily flights to 36 cities. The current totals from PIT’s website claim 149 daily departures to 47 destinations. When compared to the other airports in the list above, PIT had the highest number of destinations while a low of only 29 destinations were available in Sacramento. Southwest Florida had 46 destinations available, the highest count after PIT.
The number of cities served by flights from PIT has increased as the result of new, smaller carriers entering the market for travelers flying mostly to vacation destinations. Carriers such as Frontier and Allegiant have begun service to Las Vegas and Jacksonville. Meanwhile, Sun Air Express offers trips via small aircraft to Altoona and Jamestown NY. Porter Air offers service to Toronto. It is also worth noting that Frontier and Allegiant have also expanded service at other airports as well. Thus, the expansion of service by low cost carriers may be driven more by an increase in demand for air travel nationwide rather than anything special happening at PIT.
The progress in attracting more carriers and daily flights is commendable, but the passenger traffic pickup has been negligible for the last two years.
As explained in previous Policy Briefs, nearly 25 years ago PIT tied its future to USAirways with the construction of the larger and costly new terminal. When USAirways’ struggles began in the early 2000s, so too did those of the airport. The carrier largely abandoned not just the airport but the region as well. PIT was left with a very large debt load from the terminal construction. To help make bond payments, PIT maintained some of the highest fees paid by air carriers at comparable airports. With money from gaming taxes and an upfront payment for the rights to extract natural gas from its property, the airport has made strides in bringing that debt down and subsequently has been able to reduce its fees. We would expect that as royalty payments start to accrue from the unconventional wells on the property, fees should continue to decrease.
The reduction in fees will no doubt be a key ingredient in luring still more low cost carriers to PIT. However, the demand for flights will not only be dependent upon offering more destinations but also growth in the area’s disposable income that can be spent on travel. Business travel will also depend to a degree on the pace of expansion of the local economy.