Can Pittsburgh International overcome Covid-19?

Summary: The pandemic and state-ordered restrictions on travel-related industries resulted in massive declines in passenger counts at the nation’s airports during the March-through-June period.  Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) was no exception.  Data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) show a stunningly large loss of airline traffic. Indeed, the drop in passengers was so large it may take years to fully recover to pre-coronavirus levels.

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DOT data are for origination passengers—the starting point of a trip—whether for business or pleasure.  Originations differ from enplanements, which count boardings regardless of where the passengers began their journeys.  Enplanements count those making connections at an airport as well as those using the airport as an origination point.  PIT, having lost its hub status well over a decade ago, is now primarily an origination and destination (O&D) airport.

Domestic origination passenger data available as of this analysis include only the first six months of 2020.  International data are available only through March and will not be discussed here.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2019 PIT ranked as the 47th-busiest airport in the country by enplanements.  This Brief will compare PIT’s domestic passenger counts with traffic at similarly ranked airports Sacramento; Kansas City; Santa Ana; Fort Myers; San Antonio; Cleveland; Indianapolis; Cincinnati and Columbus during the first half of 2020.

Passengers

For all U.S. airports, 2020 started off on a positive note as domestic origin traffic was up 6.2 percent in January over its year-ago level.  February was 7.5 percent above its year-ago level.  Then the pandemic arrived, and travel-related restrictions became the norm across the country in March. 

The year-over-year March origination passenger count was down 51 percent (34.4 million vs. 70.2 million).  April represented the low point with a mere 2.88 million originating passengers—down 95.7 percent from April 2019 (66.94 million). 

May traffic saw only minor improvement falling 88.5 percent from May 2019. A further small increase in air travel followed in June with a passenger decline of 77.9 percent compared to a year earlier.

The six-month total for all U.S. airports was a decline of 53.7 percent (183.11 million vs. 395.04 million) over the first six months of 2019.  For the April-May-June period, 2020’s passenger count of 27.2 million was 87 percent lower than the same three months in 2019 (211.1 million).

This pattern played out at airports across the nation.

At PIT, the months of January and February had domestic origination passenger totals of 2.5 percent and 6.4 percent above their 2019 counts, respectively. 

The drop-off over the next four months was initially worse than the all-airport total with March down 56 percent and April down 96.8 percent from the year-ago counts.  But it was slightly better than the national declines in May, off 87.6 percent, and June, off 77.6 percent.  For the first six months of 2020 origination passenger totals at PIT were 56.1 percent lower than the same period last year. 

But how did PIT compare to similarly sized airports? 

Compared to the nine similarly sized passenger-count-ranked airports, PIT’s decline in passenger counts ranked sixth best for the first six months of the year. Fort Myers (-38.8 percent); Sacramento (-53.2 percent); Indianapolis (-53.6 percent), Cincinnati (-55.3 percent) and Cleveland (-55.8 percent) had smaller declines than PIT. However, PIT was marginally better than San Antonio (-56.8 percent); Columbus (-57.2 percent); Kansas City (-57.5 percent) and Santa Ana (-58.6 percent).  Fort Myers suffered a markedly smaller decline than the other airports with the remaining nine similarly ranked airports having roughly the same passenger drops.

Flights

Much like passenger traffic, domestic origination flights for all the nation’s airports were trending above the year-earlier levels for January and February, up 4.9 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively.  And, again, as with passenger counts, flights fell off precipitously from March through May (-15.5 percent to -71.1 percent) before rebounding slightly in June (-63.8 percent). The six-month totals for domestic flights in 2020 was down by 36.2 percent over the same time frame from 2019.  For the April-May-June period, 2020’s 700,015 flights came in 68 percent lower than the same three months in 2019 (2.19 million).

For PIT, domestic origination flights follow a similar pattern, up in January and February but dramatically down from March through June.  However, both the increases in those first two months and the subsequent decreases were smaller than experienced for the nation as a whole.  For the first six months of 2020, the number of flights originating out of PIT was down marginally less than nationally at 34.5 percent. 

Compared to the nine similarly sized airports PIT fared quite well, having the third-lowest drop in the number of flights.  The only airports in the group that fared better were Fort Myers and Sacramento.  For the remaining airports, the decreases ranged from -38.6 percent (Kansas City) to -69.9 percent (Indianapolis). 

In sum, the pandemic and subsequent government-imposed restrictions took a heavy toll on the airline industry in the March-through-June period. Both metrics, domestic origination passenger count and number of flights were down substantially. 

However, based on PIT’s own reported enplanement data, July and August domestic passenger count losses compared to a year-earlier improved slightly from June’s 77.4 percent drop with a 71.1 percent decline in July and a 69.4 percent drop in August.

International flights at PIT are virtually non-existent. Thus, while there has been some uptick in air travel through the summer months (likely happening at other airports as well), the strongly negative travel and tourism effects of the pandemic are still being felt by the airline industry in particular.

While the airlines have been heavily supported by federal stimulus dollars to prevent massive layoffs and a far worse financial situation, they cannot become permanent wards of the government. Major industry changes and restructuring are likely. The implication for airports, especially mid-sized facilities such as PIT, could be severe. 

Some airports have spent a lot of money to subsidize carriers, especially international ones like British Airways.  PIT has been among the most aggressive at airline subsidies. These so-called “investments”—“investments” that we vehemently and correctly opposed—were never likely to be recouped and now, in the pandemic curtailed industry, almost certainly will not be.

Government and airport officials should never use taxpayer money to pick airlines to subsidize. Government should ensure only an open market for carriers and provide competitively priced airport services.  Bitter experience in recent years should have demonstrated this truth many times.  Subsidizing overseas travel by local residents is the worst idea of all. 

Now the Allegheny County Airport Authority has developed an ambitious and expensive terminal replacement plan it claims will be paid for by the airlines operating at PIT.  Apparently not much has been done to advance that plan. The airlines were seemingly reluctant to sign on even before the pandemic. They will almost certainly not be willing or able to pay for it in light of the straitened conditions they operate in now or are likely to operate in for the foreseeable future.

International passenger traffic at PIT in 2019 compared to 2018

Summary:  After a significant delay, Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) released passenger data for 2019.  While the overall results were not good as the total passenger count rose only 1.2 percent over 2018, the number of international passengers was down substantially despite the much heralded, and subsidized, return of British Airways.

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Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) posted a very meager gain in passenger traffic in 2019 following two years of significant increases. Data from the airport’s website shows 2019 total domestic and international passengers (enplanements and deplanements) were up just 1.2 percent from 2018 compared to 7.5 percent from 2017 to 2018 and 8.2 percent 2017 over 2016.  Domestic passenger enplanements and deplanements rose 1.8 percent in 2019, a sharp slide from the 7.3 percent gain in 2018. Meanwhile, international traffic fell by 16.3 percent compared to 2018 and was also lower than the 2017 reading.

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) provides detailed passenger data for the nation’s airports on its TranStats Data Elements website.  The data are delayed in being reported because of the enormous numbers of items reported for hundreds of airports. As of this Policy Brief date the website includes information for international traffic only through August 2019 but that will be adequate to estimate the impact of the loss of Delta’s summer flights to Paris (the critical period for international travel) through a comparison with summer of 2018 international passenger counts.

Note that TranStats provides passenger counts for origination and destination passengers separately, that is, those that begin or end their trip at PIT. These counts differ from the passenger totals reported by PIT because PIT and other airports report both enplanements and deplanements regardless of airport of origination or destination and therefore include connecting travelers. Bear in mind, too, that TranStatsdata are compiled from airline reports rather than airport reports. This Brief will use origination passenger counts for comparison purposes and they will be referred to simply as boardings.

Using TranStatsdatathis Brief examines the initial impact on international passenger counts at PIT with the coming of British Airways service in April 2019 and the 2019 cessation of Delta’s summer flights to Paris beginning with September 2018 although it continued minimal seasonal international flights in January through April 2019. The ending of WOW’s international flights in January 2019 will also have an impact on the summer numbers.

After WOW’s departure, international service—according to the PIT website—is now offered by Condor, twice a week to Frankfurt; Air Canada Express, three daily to Toronto and one daily to Montreal; Delta, Southwest, Apple Vacations and Vacation Express, all providing mostly seasonal flights to Mexico and the Caribbean.

The WOW loss could be the principal reason that the January through March international boardings on foreign carriers fell from 15,025 in 2018 to 9,599 in 2019. Total international boardings (U.S. and foreign carriers) dropped from 17,661 in the three-month period in 2018 to 12,224 in the same period in 2019. 

TranStats statistics for international passengers are available only through August but that gives enough information to see how international boardings fared during the critical period May through August, the period when Delta was no longer providing service to Paris.

In the May through August period of 2018 there were 74,446 boardings of international passengers on U.S. and foreign carriers. Of that number, 20,734 were on U.S. carriers and 53,712 on foreign carriers. In the same four months in 2019 there were 48,036 international boardings—26,410 fewer than 2018—all on foreign carriers and none were reported by U.S. carriers.  The 26,410 cumulative decline for the four peak-summer months represents a 35 percent drop from the 2018 figure. In contrast to the BTS statistics, PIT’s website data for the four summer months show international passenger traffic was down 28.7 percent. It should be pointed out that the TranStats August 2018 passenger count figure is anomalously large.   Remember too that PIT data includes all passengers, inbound and outbound regardless of origination or destination airports.

Note as well that foreign carrier boardings were down 5,676 for the four months compared to 2018. The absence of WOW could account for some of the foreign carrier decline.

Delta boarded 18,130 international passengers in the May-August period of 2018 and thus accounted for almost 90 percent of the decline in U.S. carrier boardings. American reported 1,413 international boardings and Southwest 1,140 to account for most of the non-Delta international passengers in 2018.  Delta did carry a few passengers in September of 2018 before stopping the summer service altogether. In 2016 it had cut the October flights.

This all means that British Airways, whose numbers are not reported separately in the TranStats database, fell far short of replacing WOW and Delta passenger counts in the critical summer travel-to-Europe period.  How much cannot be determined exactly without airline-specific data. Some of the shortfall could be due to Air Canada or Condor declines in boardings. But it would seem reasonable to assign a large percentage of the summer international boardings doldrums to the failure of British Airways’ four flights per week to make up the Delta losses. 

TranStats data show that in the first eight months of 2018, 98,454 passengers boarded international flights; in the first eight months of 2019, 67,040 passengers boarded international flights. The year-to-date decline for 2019 compared to 2018 was 31.9 percent. The PIT website puts the year-to-date decline for the same period at 21.9 percent.

For comparison purposes note that over the four-month summer periods in 2018 and 2019, total international boardings at U.S. airports rose 2.3 percent with domestic carriers posting an increase of 3.9 percent.  PIT unfortunately had no international passengers boarding domestic carriers in the summer of 2019, a 100 percent drop from 2018.

The significant differences in percentage changes in international passenger traffic between PIT’s self-reported statistics and the TranStats data are likely explainable in large part to the fact that the PIT data does not distinguish between passengers whose origin or destination is PIT and connecting passengers. Generally, PIT passenger numbers for each month and year-to-date are more than twice as large as the TranStats numbers for originating passengers boarding at PIT.

Looking ahead to the reports for first quarter 2020 traffic, PIT’s international numbers should improve compared to 2019. British Airways was not flying in the first quarter of 2019 and neither was WOW. With the presence of British Airways this year, that change should make the 2020 numbers look more favorable in comparison to a year earlier. 

However, in light of the chilling effect of the Coronavirus problem, foreign travel could be down substantially for several months, even to Europe and certainly to Asia. Thus, we might not have a clear picture of British Airways’ longer-term effect on PIT for at least another year.

One thing can be said: At a cost of $1.5 million per year in airport subsidy to the carrier and the cessation of Delta summer flights to Europe, 2019 international travel at PIT was a huge disappointment. An analysis of the domestic passenger traffic at PIT for 2019 by carrier will be forthcoming as soon as the December 2019 numbers are available.

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.

WOW, what a turn of events at PIT

Summary: Bad news continues to come for Pittsburgh International Airport in 2018—from airlines not meeting expectations or others canceling flights or ceasing operations.  The common thread for these events is the presence of subsidies which were offered that distort the marketplace.

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Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) is having a very tough run.  At the end of November the Allegheny County Airport Authority announced that Qatar Airways’ cargo flights from PIT failed to generate their projected levels of cargo carried and thus obligated PIT to pay a “support fee” to the airline.  Then it was announced that WOW Airlines, another airline collecting PIT subsidies, is not offering flights to Iceland and from there to Europe after mid-January 2019.  This comes on top of the news just a few months ago that PIT is suing OneJet to recoup a loan. Shortly after that suit was filed, OneJet suspended all flights.  Then Delta announced it was cancelling its seasonal flights to Paris.  It’s fair to say that PIT has been hit with a run of very bad news during the second half of 2018.

We weighed in on the OneJet saga (Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 32) and the decision of Delta to stop its seasonal flight to Paris (Policy Briefs Vol. 18, Nos.31 and 41) which occurred shortly after the Airport Authority announced it was giving a $3 million subsidy to British Airways to provide service to London beginning in the spring of 2019.

The Qatar Airways case is a bit different in that instead of receiving a subsidy to transport passengers to destinations previously unserved by other airlines—the Airport Authority’s justification for subsidizing OneJet, WOW, British Airways, Condor, etc.—Qatar was subsidized to carry cargo.  Before Qatar began operating at PIT in October 2017, the announcement of the added cargo service was accompanied by the usual enthusiasm and the promise of turning PIT into a logistics center.  News coverage of Qatar’s cargo service even mentioned that it might aid in attracting Amazon to the region.  Evidently, it was not a factor since Amazon is not coming to Pittsburgh.

Consider this:  in terms of cargo tonnage, PIT is ranked as the 53rd largest airport in the country by the Federal Aviation Administration, based on landed weight in 2017 (470.1 million pounds—roughly 235,000 tons).  Ten years earlier, in 2007, the airport ranked as the 48th busiest with 492.2 million pounds (246,100 tons) of landed cargo.  While things may be looking up2017’s landed cargo weight was 4 percent better than in 2016it still has not caught up to where it was before the last recession.

The Airport Authority took a gamble on Qatar Airways being able to boost PIT as a cargo center and lost.  From the news report in September 2017 it was claimed that Qatar planned to transport 200 tons of cargo to and from Pittsburgh each week from Doha to Luxembourg to Atlanta and then Pittsburgh.  Bear in mind that at the 2017 tonnage level, PIT averaged over 4,500 tons of landed cargo per week. So at the planned 200 tons per week Qatar would account for about 4 percent of PIT cargo handled.

Under the arrangement the authority was obligated to pay Qatar a “support fee” of $744,000 every six months if the carrier failed to average 480 tons of cargo per month—about half the planned 200 tons per week. It never came close to 480 tons. The authority paid the airline two installments for a total of $1.48 million for the year.  According to recent news, the best month for the airline netted only 180 tons (October 2018) and before that 163 tons (October 2017).  In June 2018 only 99 tons were carried with a further drop to only 61 tons in September.  The route was even changed to go through Chicago instead of Atlanta and two sales agents were hired to boost cargo totals and it still was not enough.

While Qatar is still operating at PIT, presumably without the subsidy, there have been news reports stating “that could potentially change if another deal is reached between Qatar and the authority.”

The authority still has dreams of being a logistics center—but at what cost?  The other, non-subsidized cargo haulers such as FedEx and UPS are at PIT and offering service because the market is strong enough they can do so profitably and without subsidies.  How will they react if Qatar is given additional subsidies to compete with them?  Will they ask for subsidies as well? The Airport Authority may have painted itself into a corner in their attempt to manipulate the market.

WOW Airlines’ decision to stop offering flights past mid-January was not a surprise but speaks to the lack of real demand for flights to Europe.

WOW has already stopped flying out of Cleveland and Cincinnati, with service lasting only from May to October from the latter, and will cease operating out of St. Louis in January, again after a brief stay of just eight months.

According to a Cleveland news report, WOW’s statement noted that the routes did not perform as well as hoped and that load factors were not achieving target levels.  Similar reasoning was used when pulling out of St. Louis while high cost and low profits were reasons for leaving Cincinnati.

WOW committed to Cleveland in August 2017, shortly after committing to PIT (June 2017).  Both airports subsidized the airline.  Cleveland offered $1 million over two years while PIT offered $800,000 over two years. St. Louis also offered $800,000 over two years but due its short time in that city, WOW failed to qualify for the agreed-upon subsidy.  News concerning the cessation of Cincinnati flights did not mention whether subsidies had been given to the carrier.

In Cleveland, WOW competed head-to-head with Icelandair with bad results.  According to another Cleveland news article, Icelandair was in talks to purchase WOW but those talks failed and the merger was called off in late November, just before WOW announced it was cancelling service at PIT. The article notes that with the failed merger, WOW’s “future is up in the air.”

So after an aggressive expansion campaign in 2017, and collecting taxpayer subsidies, WOW’s future is very much in doubt at the end of 2018.  It seems unlikely the airline with resume flights at PIT anytime soon—if ever.

Propping up business enterprises with public funds is not only a high-risk practice but it represents interference in the marketplace and begets ever more subsidies undermining the role of markets. This is especially egregious in the effort by PIT to artificially create travel to certain destinations by underwriting the cost of the fares.

It is folly on its face. Because to be truly successful in terms of sustaining adequate passengers loads for the flights, the subsidies would have to go on forever given that the real underlying demand is not there.   Perhaps the Airport Authority will learn a valuable lesson from 2018’s embarrassing failures and all the money that it has wasted.

The Airport’s Misguided $3 Million Subsidy to British Airways

Summary: On July 25, Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) officials announced that British Airways would begin nonstop flights from Pittsburgh to London’s Heathrow airport. $3 million in subsidy is being provided to the airline to offer service at PIT.  This Policy Brief describes the deep flaws in the subsidy of British Airways.

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British Airways is set to begin flights in April 2019 with one flight per day on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Flights will arrive at 8:15 p.m. and depart at 9:50 p.m. PIT will become the 27th U.S. destination for the carrier and is by far the smallest airport in terms of enplaned passengers (ranked 47th in the U.S. in 2017).

To get the airline to resume operations at PIT after a long hiatus the Airport Authority will pay British Airways $1.5 million each year for two years. This after handing WOW Air $800,000 to fly to Iceland and on to Europe and $500,000 to Condor for seasonal flights to Germany. Note, too, that American Airlines offers one-stop service to London through Philadelphia and Charlotte with several flights to choose from each day. Those airports are American Airlines hubs and can gather travelers from many cities to fill planes flying to Heathrow. Then, too, American is already posting fares at PIT to match the British Airways fares for next April.

The obvious question—will the British Airways service create new passengers at the airport or take them away from existing flights, some of which are receiving airport subsidies? According to the British Airways spokesperson, there is pent-up demand for travel to Europe. If that’s the case, why are subsidies necessary and why haven’t U.S. airlines jumped at the chance to offer nonstop flights to serve the pent-up demand?  Something does not add up here.

Indeed, the only possible justifiable reason to subsidize any carrier is to create demand by foreigners to fly to PIT. Subsidizing passengers to fly out of the country on a foreign carrier to spend money as tourists abroad is folly.

And that leads to the worst part of the airport’s presentation announcing the subsidy arrangement with British Airways. Airport executives said the authority estimates there will be a $57 million economic impact resulting from the British Airways presence.  To be clear, the economic impact estimates were provided in a study prepared by the EDR Group of Boston.

Apparently, most of the estimated impacts in the EDR study are based on assumptions about non-U.S. passengers using the flights. The study does not provide figures for spending on baggage handling, gate services, or purchases of fuel, food and beverages. EDR assumes 40,562 arriving and departing passengers annually on 234 roundtrips (81 percent occupancy).  Presumably those figures are from British Airways. Of those, 29 percent (11,763) are assumed to be from the United Kingdom or other Europeans whose destination is PIT and are not connecting to another city. How the 29 percent figure was determined is not explained.

Spending by the UK/European visitors in the Pittsburgh region seems to account for the bulk of the economic impact of the carrier’s flights. All told, the study predicts the 234 yearly roundtrips will lead to 564 added jobs in the 10-county Southwestern Pennsylvania region with average worker income of $37,776 and a total labor income boost of $21,306,000. This will be accompanied by a value-added increase of $33,879,000 according to the study. The $57 million economic impact figure quoted by airport executives is for gross sales and not net value produced.

Before evaluating the study estimates in more detail, it is important to note three large potential differences in economic impact depending on passenger count assumptions. Obviously, the total of 40,562 passengers matters because it will determine the amount of services needed at the airport. The assumption of 29 percent (11,763) non-U.S. passengers is critical because that drives the bulk of the local economic impact. And third, the British Airways passenger count assumptions do not factor in the percentage of travelers that would have flown other airlines to and from England or Europe.

Note that most of the projected new jobs in the study will be at restaurants and hotels as a result of the increase in foreign visitors to the region. Bear in mind, however, that 11,763 visitors to the region over 365 days is an average of only 33 per day.  Even if they stay seven days on average that represents only 82,000 hotel or other accommodation room nights. The city alone has around 2.6 million room nights available per year and the rest of the region likely has at least half that many. Thus, UK/European visitor stays would make up only two percent or so of the region’s available room nights.

And in that regard, it is highly improbable that a two percent uptick in room nights would create a commensurate number of new hospitality jobs. Indeed, stats from “The Economic Impact of Travel and Tourism in Pennsylvania 2016”, prepared by Tourism Economics a division of the Oxford Economics Company, show that for Allegheny County in 2016, on average, $143,297 was spent by tourists/travelers for each job in the tourism related industries. If that figure is still anywhere close to the present ratio, the 11,763 visitors would have to spend over $80 million, or $7,000, each to produce 564 new jobs.

What’s more, most newly created jobs resulting from these foreign travelers would likely be low-paid hotel room attendants and restaurant wait staff for which pay levels are about $23,000, a far cry from the $37,776 pay level used in the EDR report. The figure EDR used for average worker pay would include salaries of managers, sales reps, engineers, security, repairmen, etc. It seems extremely unlikely that additional staff in these higher paid categories would be needed to handle an average of 224 people per night—assuming seven-day stays per visitor—at all the hotels in the 10-county region or even if they are concentrated in Allegheny County hotels.

And it gets worse. There is no estimate of how many of the 28,800 local passengers will be additional travelers to the UK/Europe or will be passengers that would have traveled on other airlines such as the already subsidized and very inexpensive WOW Air or from folks who would have flown one stop on American through Philadelphia or Charlotte—or United through Newark or Dulles. But it is almost certain that a large percentage will be passengers that would have taken other carriers. Likewise, it is not known how many Europeans will use British Airways instead of American or some other airline to come to Pittsburgh. If as few as half of Pennsylvania travelers to Heathrow are net new passengers and half of UK visitors are net new travelers that would mean the net effect of British Airways flights would be 15,000 more locals headed to London with 5,900 additional UK or other Europeans coming to the Pittsburgh area. Other assumptions about the ratio of new additional to total passengers could be made but this one will serve to illustrate the point.

If 5,900 is a better measure of the net additional UK/Europeans visiting Southwestern Pennsylvania, then the impact on the economy will be far lower than even a realistic estimate of the impact of 11,763 visitors, which the EDR estimate clearly was not.   Consider, too—assuming foreign visitors to Southwestern Pennsylvania spend about the same as local travelers spend abroad—that the outflow of dollars from the region to foreign-owned enterprises caused by 28,800 local travelers flying to London and perhaps visiting other European destinations will be far greater than the inflow of money associated with 11,763 foreign visitors to the region.  Using the EDR estimate of 29 percent of the passengers to be UK/Europe residents—which seems high—then U.S. residents make up 71 percent, a ratio of almost 2.5 to one. Thus, spending by Pennsylvania travelers would be 2.5 times greater than foreign British Airways travelers to the Pittsburgh region. That is not a win for the region. Indeed, it is just the opposite. Moreover, if the percentage of UK/European travelers turns out to be only 20 percent of total, the ratio of U.S. spending abroad to foreign spending in the region rises to four to one. And so forth if the percentage of foreign passengers is even lower.

Then too, the money spent by local residents to fly on British Airways will end up in that airline’s bank account.  And for that matter so will all the fares purchased by UK/European passengers. Using British Airways’ estimate of 28,800 Southwestern Pennsylvanians (and maybe some from out of the area) who will pay a low-side estimate of $1,000 or more for the trip means British Airways will collect $28,800,000 in fare revenue from area residents. And those dollars are leaving the region even before the travelers land in England. Note that British Airways’ basic economy fares at $716 will be available but these fares are accompanied by fees for luggage. And, the passengers cannot select their seats and must board last. Prices are significantly higher for other seat classes. The $1,000 figure is used for demonstration purposes as an estimate of average fares but the actual average is likely to be significantly higher and the regional outflow of dollars higher as well.

Even if half the passengers would have flown other airlines absent the arrival of British Airways, the British carrier would still collect $28,800,000 in fare revenue. And if average fares for the other carriers are close to British Airways, they would lose almost $15 million in revenue. Obviously, any reductions in U.S. airline revenue will lower the economic benefits of the arrival of British Airways.

The fact that PIT is not a major hub and that the area is not world famous as a tourist destination—certainly not a on a scale such as Orlando, Miami, Las Vegas, Tampa, Phoenix or even New Orleans—makes it harder to induce UK/Europeans to fly to PIT as tourists.

All these factors make the airport’s $3 million misguided taxpayer investment unlikely to ever pay for itself unless British companies with significant investment and potential employment that otherwise would not have located facilities in the region decide to place operations in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  And in the meantime, with the most probable effects of the subsidy being 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.

A Comparative Analysis of Pittsburgh International Airport Passenger Data

Summary: From 2015 to 2017 flights and passenger counts rose at Pittsburgh International Airport. While the numbers are certainly much improved, are they better than the performance at similarly sized airports? This Brief finds the Pittsburgh gains to be about average relative to the study group and well short of the best performers.

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A Policy Brief from earlier this year looked at the passenger data from the U.S. Department of Transportation and compared the performance of Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) to that of similarly sized airports around the country.

But when that Brief was published data for domestic passengers in 2017 covered only through October.  The data for domestic passengers have been finalized for 2017 which enables a full-year comparison.  Domestic travelers account for the vast majority (98 percent in 2016) of airline passengers at PIT and will be the focus of this Brief.

The data cover 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 U.S. Department of Transportation criteria).

Based on information as of October, it was noted that passenger count at PIT had moved higher. The full year of data did not change that finding.  Predictably, local officials are touting the recent gain. However, as shall be shown in this Brief, some perspective on the latest uptick in passengers is called for.

In 2015 the number of domestic origination and destination passengers (O&D) using PIT was just above 7.61 million.  The count for 2017 was 8.34 million, an increase over the two years of 9.7 percent.  Bear in mind that PIT’s 8.34 million O&D passengers represent a mere 0.56 percent of the national figure of 1.483 billion.  PIT’s percentage growth over the two year period is better than the total for all airports (6.55 percent).

Interestingly, the two year gain at the major airports (the busiest 30) was only 5.5 percent with the remaining airports posting a nearly 9 percent higher count. The extent of concentration of airline flight O&D is demonstrated by the fact that the 30 highest passenger count airports account for 69 percent of all domestic O&D passengers. Nonetheless, faster growth appears to be happening at the smaller airports, perhaps because there is more capacity for additional flights. Note that PIT ranked as the 48th busiest airport in terms of enplanements (2016).

Of the 15 similarly sized airports—those ranking 38th through 52nd in the Federal Aviation Administration’s ranking by 2016 enplaned passengers—Cincinnati experienced the biggest jump in O&D at 25 percent, and ranked 52nd,  followed by San Jose (up 23.4 percent, ranked 40th) and Raleigh (up 14 percent, ranked 39th).  PIT’s 2015 to 2017 increase ranks ninth best in this group of 15 comparable airports.  San Juan, Puerto Rico (down 3.4 percent, 43rd) Santa Ana, California (up 3.8 percent, 41st) and Fort Meyers, Florida (up 4.9 percent, 45th) recorded the weakest two-year performances. Of course San Juan was beset by problems with the 2017 hurricane season that undoubtedly reduced air travel sharply. The average growth rate for the 15-airport sample is 10.5 percent.

Another metric of airport performance is the number of O&D flights at each airport.  PIT’s supporters point to a rise in number of flights being offered, but again how does that stand up to the activity at similarly sized airports?

From 2015 through 2017 the number of O&D flights at PIT rose by 2.8 percent.  For the 15-airport sample the average growth rate to O&D flights is four percent.  For all airports around the country that growth was more subdued at just 1.4 percent.  At the major airports the gain was a bit better at 1.5 percent while the remaining airports had O&D flight growth of just 1.3 percent.  In the group of 15 comparison airports, PIT’s growth in flights ranks ninth.  At the top is San Jose (25.4 percent) and Sacramento (12 percent, 42nd) while San Juan (-13 percent) and Milwaukee (-3 percent, 51st) sit at the bottom with drops in traffic. In fact five airports from this group had either no gains or declines.

An important measure of airline productivity 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.  For originating flights across all airports the load factor for 2017 was 84.57—down slightly from the 2015 level of 84.98.  For airports ranked in the top 30, the origination load factor in 2017 was 85.43, down from 85.79 in 2015 while for the remainder the factor was 81.99 down from 82.46.

In 2015 PIT had the lowest origination load factor of the 15 airports in the comparison group at 79.07. In 2017 the load factor at PIT edged up to 81.2, placing its ranking at third worst just ahead of Cincinnati (81.07) and Columbus (80.37).  San Juan had the highest load factor in both 2015 (89.19) and 2017 (90.97), while the average for the comparison group stood at 82.51 in 2015 and 83.14 in 2017.

Destination load factors are about the same as origination load factors, as one would expect.  The load factor for PIT’s destination flights stands at 81.24 up 2.4 percent from 79.31 in 2015.    While this percentage rise is respectable, the load factor remains low compared to the all airport total of 84.57 and the ratio of 85.55 posted at major airports.  PIT’s 2017 load factor was better than Columbus (81.07) but trailed the rest of the airports in the sample. The sample average in 2017 was 82.78 for destination flights.

The relatively low load factor at PIT for both O&D flights points to substantially more unfilled seats than the national average as well as 2.4 percent more unfilled seats than the comparison group average. This relatively low load factor is almost certainly a consideration in decisions about adding flights. If underserved markets for Pittsburgh area travelers can be ferreted out, there might be further expansion.  Otherwise gains in passenger counts will depend heavily on growth in the population age groups that have high propensities to travel by air and on the growth of employment and incomes in the airport’s service area.

However, as has been documented, officials in charge of PIT don’t necessarily rely on market forces alone to help airlines make decisions.  For example, a late January news article noted that in 2017 PIT paid out $3.4 million in incentives to offer passenger service to five destinations and cargo service by a Middle Eastern carrier.  OneJet also received a million dollars to begin service over the next two years and Allegiant Air has begun service to Charleston, S.C. with a “small marketing” incentive.  Unfortunately, six months into the cargo flights things are not going well and the airport may be on the hook for $1.5 million in wasted subsidies—a glaring example of how ignoring market forces and looking for headline grabbing announcements can be misguided and very costly.

More unfortunately, there seems to be no sign of ending carrier subsidies.  Subsidy-happy airport officials must have warmly welcomed the Legislature’s indefinite extension of the $12 million per year in gaming money that was about to come to an end.

The bottom line:  PIT’s flights and passenger counts have risen in recent years.  But other airports of similar size have seen more improvement than PIT in key gauges of activity. Plus there has been a significant rise of air travel nationally that has benefitted most commercial airports.  In short, the airport needs to be a little less self-congratulatory about its better numbers.

Passenger Count Grows at Pittsburgh International Airport

Summary: In late January, Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) released passenger numbers for 2017.  Total passengers enplaned and deplaned at PIT last year reached 8.988 million—8.16 percent growth over 2016’s 8.31 million.  While those in charge of PIT are busy congratulating themselves, perhaps some perspective is in order.

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PIT’s passenger count reached the highest level since 2007 when it reached 9.822 million. PIT’s troubles over the years have been documented by Institute Policy Briefs, from the high debt levels incurred to build the current terminal to the financial struggles of US Airways and its dramatically reduced activity at PIT. Rising passenger counts since 2013 are surely welcome news.

2017’s jump of over 8 percent compared to 2016 is the largest yearly gain this century.  But is this significant rise unique to PIT or are other airports seeing similar boosts in passenger totals?  Using U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) data, PIT’s performance can be compared with other similarly sized airports.

DOT airline passenger data for 2017 are available only through October.  So for purposes of comparison to 2016, all airport data, including PIT data, will use cumulative passenger counts through October of both years.  Also this Brief will look only at domestic activity, that is, only those travelling within the country. Since DOT international data are available only through July 2017 and international passengers at PIT only accounted for 0.6 percent (23,762 of 3.89 million) of total enplaned passengers in 2016, the most meaningful comparison of air travel at PIT to other airports is the domestic passenger count.

For all U.S. airports the number of domestic passengers enplaning in 2017 grew by 2.76 percent over 2016 levels.  However, it is noteworthy that at major U.S. airports—those ranked in the top 30 in terms of enplanements—passenger count rose only 1.94 percent in 2017.  For all other airports the gain was higher at 4.65 percent.  Thus, the nation’s largest airports grew at a slower rate than the smaller ones, perhaps because they are already at or near capacity.  Note that PIT ranks as the nation’s 48th-busiest airport in terms of enplanements and accounted for 3.87 million of 720 million, or 0.54 percent of 2016 domestic enplanements in the U.S.

Looking at airports close to PIT in size, those ranked from 40th busiest (San Jose) to 52nd busiest (Cincinnati), only two had a decrease in enplaned passengers—Santa Ana, California—John Wayne-Orange County (down 1.5 percent) and San Juan’s Luis Munoz International Airport (considered a domestic airport, down 1.1 percent).  Cincinnati had the largest passenger count increase in 2017 with a jump of 16.1 percent followed by San Jose (13.8 percent) and Cleveland (9.2 percent).  PIT’s 7 percent rise, going from 3.23 million through October 2016 to 3.45 million through October 2017, was the fourth best just above Sacramento (6.4 percent).  Thus, PIT’s performance in 2017 was a nice improvement but well below the gains posted at Cincinnati and San Jose.

Another brag item mentioned by PIT officials is the number of flights that have been added.  Again DOT data for domestic flights (year-to-date through October 2016 vs. year-to-date through October 2017) provides some perspective.  Flights at PIT rose 3.2 percent during the period, increasing from 43,624 flights through October 2016 to 45,028 through October 2017.

For all airports in the country the number of domestic flights was virtually unchanged (down 0.2 percent).  Flights at the top 30 airports fell slightly more (down 0.3 percent). For the remaining airports the combined total flights were virtually unchanged.

Again, looking at the airports ranked from 40th to 52nd, the largest gain in domestic flights occurred at San Jose’s airport (14.1 percent).  Five airports had losses with San Juan having the greatest decline (7.7 percent) which is no doubt related to a very active 2017 hurricane season in the Atlantic (the number of flights for September and October were cut by a quarter).  PIT’s increase of 3.22 percent is the 5th largest rise of the 13 airports in this list—again not bad.  But the notion that PIT is a world beater in obtaining flights ignores the fact that other comparable airports are doing just as well and some are doing it better.

Interestingly, one brag item for PIT is the number of international flights offered.  As mentioned above the DOT data for international flights is available only through July 2017.  Through July 2017 PIT had 1,070 international flights, a decrease of 7.75 percent from the 1,160 international flights taken through July 2016.  However it is up 40 percent over 2015’s number (through July).

To be sure, the increase in both flights and passengers at PIT is encouraging for an airport that has had little to cheer about this century, especially in the context of a being in a regional market with no population growth and mediocre job gains.

One final metric to consider is what the airline industry calls the “load factor.”  Load factor is the ratio of passenger miles flown to the number of seat miles available.  For all airports in the country in 2017 (through October) the load factor was 84.53.  For the 30 largest airports it was 85.30.  For the remainder of airports the load factor was 82.35. Neither of these load factors changed much from 2016.

The load factor at PIT in 2017 (through October) was 81.09 percent—a slight decline from 2016 (81.38) despite the pickup in enplaned passengers. Of the airports ranked by size from 40th through 52nd, PIT’s load factor was the second lowest of the group, above Cincinnati (80.92) and just below Columbus (81.11).  The highest load factor was San Juan (90.33) followed by Kahului, Hawaii (87.13) and then Santa Ana, California (84.52).  With PIT’s load factor ranking amongst the lowest of its peer group, there would appear to be a weakening incentive to add more flights.

Finally, consider the amount of money Allegheny County’s Airport Authority has given to airlines to offer flights at PIT.  A late January news article noted that in 2017 the authority paid out nearly $3.4 million in incentives to airlines to offer passenger service to five destinations and cargo service to the Middle East. On top of that, OneJet also received a million dollars to begin service to 10 new destinations over two years.

The authority’s CEO shrugs off criticism of doling out money to airlines saying it’s the cost of doing business in the industry.  And that’s a sad commentary about the industry as other airports play the same game.  For example Delta will receive a subsidy to fly from Indianapolis to Paris (as it does from PIT for a similar flight) and WOW Air, also a recipient of PIT subsidies, will begin service from Cincinnati and Cleveland this May thanks to taxpayer money.  But the question remains: how are subsidies that, in effect, lower passenger ticket prices or lower shipper costs compared to what they would be without the subsidy, good for taxpayers? It is like subsidies to sports stadiums that enrich owners and make tickets more affordable than they otherwise would be.  This is very poor public policy.

While PIT and county officials are pleased with the uptick in both passengers and flights offered, is it a sign that these subsidies are working?  How much of the increase in passengers at PIT is due to a general rise in air travel demand and how much to the subsidized added service?  Since the majority of comparable airports also had increases in enplaned passengers, it is quite likely a growing national economy that is spurring air travel that gets much of the credit for 2017’s gain.  Once the subsidies are gone (if they ever are), will the subsidized flights disappear as well?  Airlines are not in business to lose money and low or falling load factors accompanied by the end of subsidies could and probably will lead to some reductions in service.

Local demand for air travel depends on the size and income of the population. As we have been saying for years, once the Pittsburgh region’s economy and population starts to grow appreciably and people have the disposable income to fly, the demand for travel at PIT will increase without subsidies and the airlines will respond accordingly.

A WOW Question: At What Cost?

Summary:  The announcement of two new international airlines beginning service at Pittsburgh International Airport in 2017 has been applauded by local officials and the media.  However, these two new airlines will be receiving taxpayer subsidies to operate here.  If history is any guide these subsidies will likely end up being another misuse of taxpayer money.

 

Recently Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) announced the arrival of two new airlines to the fold, WOW Air from Iceland and Condor Airlines from Germany.  Both are discount no-frills airlines that will fly to Europe beginning in 2017.  While the media hails this move as a big positive for PIT, it must be asked at what cost and what effect on the airport’s lackluster passenger count?

 

Both airlines are reported to begin receiving public subsidies to operate at PIT in 2017.  News accounts place the amounts at $800,000 over two years for WOW and $500,000 for Condor.  In addition neither airline will have to pay landing fees for those years, which according to the news story, is a cost reduction given to all new airlines beginning service at PIT.  The money for the direct subsidy will come from the State’s Department of Community and Economic Development.

 

It has been noted in the media that subsidies to entice airlines is a regular practice.  PIT bested Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport for both airlines as Cleveland reportedly offered WOW $400,000 over three years.  No word on what Cleveland offered Condor.

 

Delta launched the PIT to Paris summer route with $9 million in subsidies from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the state (Post-Gazette, Sept. 23, 2016). Baltimore-Washington International subsidizes British Airways routes to London.  However, just because airports are eager to boost their portfolio of destinations served does not mean that taxpayer dollars should be used to do so.  And even if the subsidies are enough to bring these carriers to the airport, ultimately it will be passenger demand that will keep them long term.  The Condor route to Frankfurt is to be seasonal and its future will depend upon local demand for the flight.

 

 

We have commented in many Policy Briefs about the troubles PIT has had, not only financially, but with passenger counts as well.  For the most recent month available, September, the airport boasted an increase in passenger traffic, (combined enplanements and deplanements), of 45,142 compared to the same month a year earlier—an increase of 6.8 percent.  Since 2010 only three months had better year-over-year growth:  November 2015 (7.0%), February 2011 (12.2%) and January 2011 (8.9%).

 

But when taken in context of similarly sized airports, September’s year-over-year gain is quite modest.  As outlined in Policy Brief, Volume 16, Number 12, for 2014, PIT was the 46th busiest airport in the country as designated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  PIT ranked higher than the airports of Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Columbus, 47th through 50th, respectively, but not as high as Sacramento, San Antonio or Fort Myers, Florida (42nd, 44th, and 45th).

 

Of these comparably sized airports (in terms of traffic), PIT’s September year-over-year growth bested Sacramento (5.5%), Cleveland (4.9%), and Fort Myers (-3%).  At the same time however, it fell below that of Columbus (12.6%), Indianapolis (9%), Milwaukee (8%), and San Antonio (7.4%).  It appears that September was a fairly active month for air travel overall and PIT may have benefited from the national upswing in passengers travelling.  There is no apparent, ready explanation for the September jump in travel.

 

On a year to date basis, the first nine months of 2016 saw a total increase in passenger traffic at PIT of nearly 130,000 over the same period in 2015—an increase of 2.1 percent.  However, that growth rate was better than only San Antonio (1.4%) in our list of comparable airports.   The year to date growth for the eight airports ranges from 1.4 percent to 9.3 percent (Indianapolis).  The average growth rate for the comparable airports is 4.9 percent, more than double PIT’s growth over the nine months. Note that the gain in passenger count in September 2015 to the count in September 2016 is much higher than the year to date increase, suggesting that unless the monthly pickups continue, September will in retrospect likely be considered an anomaly.

 

The crucial question: Will the addition of two new airlines with destinations to Reykjavik, Iceland and Frankfurt, Germany substantially improve the passenger count at PIT? Consider that Delta’s seasonal flight to Paris remains just that; seasonal after several years. In June of this year, Delta announced it was paring the days the flight will be offered from seven to five days, including taking off at a later time to accommodate leisure travelers instead of business passengers. Another important question: Will flights to Frankfurt take some passengers away from Delta’s Paris flight because Paris was merely an entrance point to Europe for them or not their primary European destination?

 

What’s more, when American Airlines recently eliminated a flight to Los Angeles, an airline spokesperson called the route “underperforming” and unprofitable.  This is a pointed reminder that unless travelers pack the planes on their way to Iceland and Germany, the commitment of the airlines is unlikely to extend beyond the subsidy period.  Success might also depend heavily on the layover times in Reykjavik for travelers going on to other WOW destinations and the number and location of other destinations on the continent.

 

In the long run passenger demand will dictate the flights and destinations of the airlines.  Dangling subsidies in front of airlines as an incentive to bring them here is at best a risky exercise. Who benefits from these subsidies? Pennsylvania taxpayers? Not if all the subsidies do is allow vacationers to travel at lower than market based cost. It remains to be seen whether any related new jobs in the region or state ever produce the taxes needed to cover the subsidy.

 

Once the subsidies are gone, too often so are the airlines.  To repeat a cautionary comment from previous Policy Briefs; until the Pittsburgh area economy begins to make major strides in job and income growth and climb out of its recent doldrums, the number of passengers travelling through Pittsburgh International is unlikely to grow much.

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.

Misplaced Priorities at the Airport

When the Allegheny County Airport Authority hired its new CEO back in January of this year, they did so with the goal of improving flights and service from Pittsburgh International Airport.  And they paid handsomely for this hire.  In a newspaper interview, she stated that “she hopes to attract more West Coast destinations, more international and regional flights…”

 

Since then some direct flights to vacation destinations were added on discount airlines on a seasonal basis.  Flights to Toronto have begun as well as a business-orientated carrier which started offering specialty flights amid small jets to Indianapolis and Milwaukee with the promise of adding more destinations as demand is warranted.  These flights are based on traveler demand and represent a small fraction of PIT’s origination and destination traffic.

 

But the focus from the new CEO has been on international flights.  They have focused on the Middle East (Qatar) and this week, she is in South Africa attending the World Routes conference to pitch other international destinations from PIT.  However, while on this junket, Delta Airlines has pulled the plug on domestic flights to Cincinnati, while other direct flights via an American Airlines’ regional carrier to St. Louis, and Hartford have also recently been scuttled.  The Cincinnati flight was offered six days a week and according to reports averaged less than 25 passengers per flight.  While a spokesperson blamed this loss on a pilot shortage, the numbers are more indicative of a lack of demand.

 

As we have said in past research, until the local business economy begins to strengthen which should subsequently increase the demand for travel, the problems at PIT will continue.  PIT should not be chasing flights, international or domestic.  If the passenger demand is there, these flights will be chasing PIT.