Pittsburgh International Airport domestic passenger count: 2008-2018

Summary: Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) officials have been using subsidies to lure airlines in an effort to boost passenger counts.  While passenger numbers are up at PIT, they are more likely the result of an improving national economy than subsidizing airlines.  This Brief will look at how PIT fared with passenger counts and flights over the last decade when compared to similarly-sized airports.

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Earlier Policy Briefs discussed efforts of PIT officials to increase airport usage in terms of their penchant to use subsidies to lure airlines that failed miserably (WOW Air, OneJet, Qatar cargo) and how the airport has fared with its efforts to increase passenger counts (it has not kept pace with similarly sized airports).  With the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) releasing the 2018 data for domestic passengers, flights and load factors, this Brief will look at how PIT fared with these metrics over the last decade.

The data covers origination passengers—the starting point of a trip —and destination passengers –the farthest point of travel from the origin of a trip of 75 miles or more (as per DOT criteria).  PIT lost its hub status well over a decade ago when USAirways (now American) greatly downsized operations at the facility. Now PIT is primarily an origination and destination (O&D) airport.

PIT is ranked 47th in the country based on enplanements.  For comparison purposes in this Policy Brief, the data will include 14 other similarly-sized airports ranked from 37th to 52nd by enplanements.  These international airports represent the following cities:  Cincinnati; Cleveland; Columbus; Fort Myers, Fla.; Indianapolis; Kahului, Hawaii; Kansas City; Milwaukee; Raleigh; Sacramento; San Antonio; San Jose; San Juan, Puerto Rico and Santa Ana, Calif.

Since international activity has not yet been updated through the end of 2018, the data examined covers only domestic activity at the airports in the sample.

In 2008 total domestic O&D passenger count at PIT was just over 8.4 million.  Ten years later, in 2018, the total had grown by 7 percent to 8.98 million.  For all airports (1,229) across the country O&D passengers grew by 19.4 percent during same time. Within the similar-sized airport sample O&D passenger growth ranged from a high of 39 percent in San Jose to a low of -35.38 percent at Cincinnati’s international airport.  PIT’s growth ranked 11th among the 15 international airports in the sample with the bottom four—San Juan, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Cincinnati—suffering losses.

Of particular interest is that the number of O&D flights at all 1,229 airports across the nation declined by 10.4 percent over the decade.  From 2008, just before the recession took hold, through 2015 there was a steady decline in the number of flights being offered nationwide (18.76 million to 16.12 million). Over the last three years there has been a slight rebound to reach 16.8 million in 2018.

Of the 15 airports examined only two had increases in the number of flights between 2008 and 2018: Kahului (up 13.4 percent) and San Jose (up 9.9 percent).  The other 13 airports all suffered declines over the decade ranging from a drop of 4 percent (Santa Ana) to a loss of 60.6 percent (Cincinnati).

In 2008 the number of flights at PIT stood at 127,569 but fell to 99,680 in 2014.  The number of flights began to climb afterwards, reaching 114,845 in 2018. It’s an improvement but still shy of the pre-recession level.  The net decade drop in flights at PIT was the seventh worse at 9.9 percent but still better than eight others that experienced declines over the 10-year period.

The final metric examined is the “load factor.”  Load factor is defined by the airline industry as the ratio of passenger miles flown to the number of seat miles available—a measure of how full the flights are in terms of percentages.

For originating flights, the load factor for all 1,229 airports across the country was 84.46 in 2018, up nearly 5.9 percent from the 2008 level of 79.74.  This makes sense considering that the number of O&D passengers across the country has increased while the number of flights has decreased.  In the 15-airport sample San Juan had the highest load factor in 2018 (87.13).  However, its growth was the lowest at just 1.4 percent given that the load factor in 2008 was already high (85.95, also the highest in this sample for that year).

The smallest load factor in 2018 was posted by the flights from Kansas City at 80.29, up from 74.13 10 years earlier—a growth of 8.3 percent.  PIT’s load factor for originating flights in 2018 came in at 82.78.  It was 78.97 in 2008, an increase of 4.8 percent—the 11th best increase in originating airport load factor and the 9th highest load factor in this sample of 15 airports.

As noted in a previous Brief (Vol. 18, No. 17) which looked at a shorter time frame, 2015-2017, PIT’s gains in flights and passenger counts did not keep pace with the other 14 similarly-sized airports.  Taking a longer-term view of 10 years (2008-2018) shows much the same pattern.  The near 7 percent rise in PIT’s domestic O&D ranked 11th while the change in number of flights was 7th best even though it represented a significant decline.  PIT’s 2018 load factor of 82.78 was 9th best but the increase was only 11th best.

Yet the cheerleaders for the airport and the authority that owns it continue to claim major successes—successes that are, in fact, very modest in the context of similarly sized airports.  They continue to double down by subsidizing new carriers to come to PIT such as British Airways, WOW, OneJet, Via Airlines and Condor Airlines.  WOW and OneJet have ceased operations altogether, not just at PIT.  British Airways, Condor and Via are flying, although British Airways just recently started operations and its announcement of intentions to begin flights last year coincided with the elimination of Delta’s route to Paris (a formerly subsidized route, Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 31). Via has already cut back service from four flights a week (to Birmingham, Ala.) to two after just two weeks of flying from PIT. The Airport Authority is embarking on a reconstruction at the terminal at a cost of at least $1.1 billion (it will probably end up much higher) to accommodate a demand they project will materialize.

The demand for air travel depends far more on growth of the local population and the strength of the economy than on luring airlines with subsidies.  As the national economy has picked up steam so has national air travel—including at PIT.

Still, if local officials want to boost demand for air travel, they need to concentrate on helping improve the regional economy rather than trying to artificially stimulate demand through subsidizing carriers so they can offer cheaper fares than they otherwise would need to cover costs.

Passenger Count Up Slightly at Pittsburgh International Airport

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.

 

Airport FAA Rank

2014

Passenger Traffic Percent

Change

2014 2015
Sacramento Int’l 42 8,972,756 9,608,948 7.09
San Antonio Int’l 44 8,369,628 8,507,459 1.65
Southwest Florida 45 7,970,493 8,371,801 5.03
Pittsburgh Int’l 46 7,998,970 8,128,187 1.62
Cleveland-Hopkins Int’l 47 7,609,404 8,100,073 6.45
Indianapolis Int’l 48 7,363,632 7,998,086 8.62
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.