PIT passenger rebound falters in June

Background:  After closing the monthly passenger count gap relative to the 2019 pre-pandemic readings through much of 2021 and through April of 2022, the May and June counts showed the gap starting to widen again. Note that monthly comparisons to 2020 and 2021 are essentially useless from the standpoint of understanding how Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) is faring in terms of recovering to pre-pandemic activity.

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2022 passenger count gap by month

As a May Policy Brief (Vol. 22, No. 20) noted, in January there were 30.4 percent fewer passengers at PIT compared to the same month in 2019—456,071 to 654,886. That figure improved a bit in February when the shortfall dipped to 22.3 percent and even improved further to 19.5 percent in March. Note that because of enormous variations in seasonality, monthly data comparisons are made to the same month in prior years. 

Compared to national figures, as measured by the TSA daily security screening count, PIT trailed the national rebound substantially. In the same three months, TSA checkpoint counts trailed 2019 levels by 22.5 percent in January, 15.6 percent in February and 12.4 percent in March.  For the first quarter, PITs average shortfall compared to 2019 was 25.7 percent while the national was 16.8 percent.  In terms of actual count, PIT had 504,109 fewer passengers in the first quarter of 2022 than 2019.

On a positive note, PIT’s passenger rebound continued in April with the month’s count only 13.3 percent behind the April 2019 number.  At the same time, the TSA count shortfall slipped to 9.5 percent.  Unfortunately, April would be the only month for PIT passengers to post a shrinking shortfall compared to pre-pandemic levels in the second quarter.  In May, PIT’s shortfall from 2019 rose to 14.7 percent and in June climbed further to 18.5 percent.   Meanwhile, the TSA count deficit relative to 2019 also rose in both May (10.1 percent) and June (10.9 percent)—but far less dramatically than PIT’s widening gap.

The somewhat better second quarter numbers at PIT reduced the total passenger count shortfall to 402,423, compared to 2019, an improvement of 101,486 compared to the first quarter.  But, unfortunately, the trend during the quarter was in the wrong direction. In March, the passenger shortfall was 163,446. But after dropping sharply in April and May compared to the first quarter, it jumped in June surpassing the March reading at 166,875. 

International Passengers 

International travel counts at PIT have been especially depressed so far in 2022.  In the first quarter, the number of international passengers was down an average of 62.8 percent from first quarter 2019. By comparison domestic travel was off by an average 23.3 percent and total travel 24.1 percent.  Obviously, domestic counts are very large compared to international. Note that in pre-pandemic first quarter of 2019, international travel at PIT of 40,400 amounted to 2 percent of the domestic count of 2,087,900. 

In the April through June period, international passengers began to show stronger gains. From the March shortfall from March 2019 of 64.9 percent, the April number fell slightly to 61 percent then to 58.6 percent in June.  For the three months, international travel was 40,460 (53.4 percent) lower than the passenger count in the April–June period of 2019.

The June increase in international travel from May—9,673 to 17,632 (82 percent) —no doubt reflects to some extent the return of British Airways in early June. However, bear in mind that there is typically a big jump from May-to-June as summer travel kicks in. For instance, in 2017, the May-to-June jump was 78 percent and in 2018 the rise was 92 percent.  But in 2019, the increase was only 36 percent.  The weaker May-to-June rise in 2019 no doubt reflected the loss of subsidized carriers and Delta ending its seasonal flights to Paris. British Airways had started flights in April but, evidently, its June 2019 passenger count was not sufficient to offset the loss of Delta’s PIT-to-Paris flights.

In short, absent figures from British Airways, it is not possible to determine how much it contributed to the June upturn in international passengers. One number is definite:  June 2022’s count of 17,632 international passengers at PIT represents a huge 63 percent decline from the 47,000 travelers in June 2018.

Domestic passengers 

The 2022 domestic count shortfall from 2019 showed a dramatic improvement in April, falling to 12 percent from March’s 18.6 percent.  But the improvement was short lived with the shortfall in June climbing to 17.6 percent.  For the second quarter the passenger total was 361,963 below the 2019 total and for June alone it was down 152,723.

In sum, the domestic passenger growth has definitely slowed as measured by the same month in 2019. Bear in mind, too, that total passengers for 2019 rose only 1.2 percent from the 2018 yearly total.  That small increase followed fairly substantial annual gains of 7.5 percent in 2018 and 82 percent in 2017. How much of that was owing to subsidized flights as opposed to improved economic conditions is not clear since passengers by carrier are not included in publicly available airport statistics. Some airports do report passengers by airline.

Factors affecting air travel

Several factors will affect the volume of air travel: need for travel related to business; personal and leisure travel demand; availability of flights to preferable locations; price of air fares. The last couple of years have also pointed to the role of health issues that can affect travel. Still, from an economic and financial standpoint, the principal drivers of ticket sales are income, both per capita and total in the service area, population and business demand.

Out-of-region visitor traffic including tourists, business travelers and family or friend visits will have its own set of driving factors and absent data it is unknown what percentage of total passengers they account for or how that percentage has changed since 2019. Changes in preferences or proclivity to fly as an option to driving will also be a factor but those are not easily quantifiable over short periods and are likely more long-term drivers.

In shorter-run terms, the most important factors affecting passenger demand at a non-hubbing airport—which PIT has been for several years—are regional employment (an indicator of the level of business activity), income and population. And as we have seen employment and population gains in the Pittsburgh region have been lackluster for two decades, notwithstanding a few years of decent job growth. 

The seven-county metro area population in 2020 was 60,000 or 2.6 percent below the 2000 Census reading.  And preliminary readings by the Census point to possible further declines since 2020. So, unless the incomes are growing faster than general inflation as well as air fares, and the propensity to choose air travel is rising, the population stagnation is bound to be a strongly limiting factor for air travel demand.  

Compounding the lack of population growth, private-sector job gains have been anemic in the Pittsburgh metro area except for a brief spurt in the 2016-to-2019 period when the U.S. economy was moving ahead at a fast clip. Between 2000 and 2019, average annual employment rose 58,700 jobs or 5.7 percent, an annual average growth of a paltry 0.3 percent. 

Employment was hammered in the pandemic with jobs falling by over 200,000 in April 2020 compared to April 2019. And even after the recovery began, 2020 as a whole saw the annual average job count drop by 94,000.  During the 26 months that have passed since the precipitous lockdown-induced decline in April 2020, jobs have been edging upward. However, in June 2022 they were still 38,000 below June 2019.   

Remarkably, despite the modest job growth —which are dwarfed by many Sun Belt cities such as Raleigh, N.C., Pittsburgh metro private jobs in the first six months of 2022 averaged only 1.019 million or 51,000 below the first half average in 2019.  But really telling is the fact that in the first six months of 2001—21 years ago—employment averaged 1.024 million, 5,000 more than 2022.  In stark contrast, during the first six months of 2022, private employment in Raleigh averaged 584,600 compared to 541,200 in the first half of 2019, before the pandemic. Stunningly, in the first half of 2022, Raleigh has 8 percent more jobs than in the January–June period of 2019. 

Conclusion

Pittsburgh International Airport is struggling to get back to pre-pandemic passenger counts. And in the last couple of months, it has lost ground. Perhaps the anemic economic recovery, the lack of population growth and failure to return to pre-pandemic job levels are to blame.

Will a new terminal fix the ongoing weak passenger numbers?  That appears to be doubtful—unless the policy makers decide to enact a much more business-friendly environment that would spark a more vibrant and faster-growing economy.

PIT passenger recovery lags national upturn

Background:  In March, Policy Brief Vol. 22, No.11, reported that Pittsburgh International Airport’s (PIT) passenger count recovery from the pandemic was lagging the national pace in January 2022. This Policy Brief updates the passenger count recovery from 2019 (pre-pandemic levels) through March 2022. Note that PIT passenger monthly data are released with a month or more delay while Transportation Security Administration (TSA) national passenger data are available on a daily basis.

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PIT March statistics

In early May, PIT released data for airport operations during March. Total passengers, domestic and international, rose to 674,115 during the month and were up almost 88 percent from the COVID-19 depressed reading posted in March 2021. However, the March 2022 passenger total remained 19.5 percent below the March 2019 pre-pandemic level. In line with this drop, aircraft operations were down 12.3 percent from March 2019. 

On a more positive note, cargo at PIT is up a very solid 29.5 percent since 2019 and 12.1 percent from 2021. Meantime, mail is also up 25.2 percent from 2019 but did drop 9 percent from the 2021 reading.  The increase in cargo could be supporting aircraft operations numbers.

Comparisons to national air travel 

Through March, TSA checkpoint data—a daily count of passengers entering the gate area of the nation’s airports—showed a 12.4 percent decline from the March 2019 level. By comparison PIT’s March count was down 19.5 percent from March 2019. As was noted in the March Policy Brief, “for smaller airports without major hub carriers such as PIT, the TSA checkpoint data are a reasonable proxy for national air travel and to use for comparison to passenger counts at PIT.”

PIT’s weaker than national passenger count recovery from 2019 in March continues the pattern that began in December 2021. During most of the second half of 2021, the TSA’s national monthly percentage shortfall from the same months in 2019 and PIT’s percent lack of recovery in 2021 over 2019 were very close. But, in December 2021, the national TSA count compared to 2019 held close to November’s 16 percent while PIT saw the gap with the December 2019 reading rise to 22.2 percent, a jump from November’s 16.2 percent. 

The monthly pattern since December shows PIT lagging well behind the national data in terms of recovery toward the pre-pandemic passenger levels of 2019.  The table shows the data for PIT and TSA.

                                              Percent difference passenger count

                                                        National TSA checkpoint countPIT
December 2021-16.2-22.2
January 2022-22.5-30.4
February-15.6-27.1
March-12.4-19.5
April-9.5NA

The December through March data indicates PIT is lagging well behind the national closing of the gap with 2019 travel.  For the three months of 2022 the average gap is 8.8 percentage points. The trend at both the TSA and PIT has been positive with smaller percentage shortfalls since January.  Since the TSA data for April is available it is shown in the table. The 9.5 percent gap with 2019 is the smallest since the pandemic hit. Thus, if the pattern holds, PIT should also see a significant improvement in the April figures relative to 2019 when they are released. 

Lost growth

Bear in mind that the recent passenger numbers still trail 2019 postings by significant margins.  And what is worse, nationally, air travel was up 13 percent in the three years from 2016 through 2019.  And over the 10 years from 2009 to 2019, travel rose over 37 percent. If air travel had grown just 2.5 percent per year since 2019 instead of having to bounce back from the COVID created plunge, 2022 passenger counts would be nearly 8 percent higher than 2019 or 20 percent above the recent March level.

On an annual basis, PIT’s passenger growth was 17.7 percent from 2016 to 2019 and 8.8 percent from 2017 to 2019 with most of the growth occurring in 2017 and 2018 while 2019 saw very little total growth and a big decline in international travel. If growth had continued at a comparatively slow pace of just 3 percent—well under the rate for the three years through 2019—PIT’s passenger count should be up at least 9 percent compared to 2019. Instead in March it was still short by 19.5 percent.  That suggests the passenger count is almost 30 percent shy of where it would have been absent the pandemic and slow recovery since.

Factors affecting PIT passenger recovery

There are three factors that have likely played a substantial role in the relatively slow recovery of travel at PIT compared to the national upturn.  One, much of the strong growth in the years just prior to, and through part of, 2019 was artificially boosted by an array of airline subsidies to carriers such as Condor, WOW, Delta, OneJet and Alaska Airlines.

Two, population growth in the Pittsburgh region has been essentially stalled and in 2020 was 2.6 percent below the 2000 count.  Thus, the number of potential local fliers can grow only if a higher percentage of the population can be induced to use air travel. That can be done to some extent through subsidizing ticket costs or possibly having more desirable destination offerings.  Travel can also be enhanced by more arrivals of non-residents. But that depends on having reasons to visit, something the airport can do little to change.

The third factor is employment growth.  In that regard, the Pittsburgh region is not in good shape at all. From 2000 to 2019 private employment rose only 5.8 percent.  And in March 2022 the job total was 8,300 lower than in March 2001 and still 5.1 percent under the three-year earlier employment number.

Without a major hub carrier, the passenger count at PIT will depend heavily on the local population, employment and income. Passengers arriving at PIT will depend substantially on friends and relatives coming to the region for personal visits, tourists and persons on business trips. No doubt COVID has had a massive effect on tourism and business travel.  Moreover, lack of significant population growth and paltry employment gains do not bode well for future air travel gains.

Outlook

In the near term, the concerns over pilot shortages that are causing flight cancellations and discontinued flights do not bode well for significant gains in air travel.  But likely more important is the sharp rise in fuel costs that will lead to higher ticket prices.  The increased likelihood of higher interest rates over the coming months as the Federal Reserve acts to slow inflation almost certainly points to a weaker economy and less air travel.

In short, it looks like a bumpy ride over the next several months.

PIT passenger growth slowed sharply in December and January

Summary: While last December’s and January’s passenger numbers at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) were very disappointing, there are signs that the national pace of travel picked up markedly in the last half of February.  This should bode well for a February pickup at PIT as well. Nonetheless, with the war in Ukraine having a major effect on fuel prices, and perhaps on consumer sentiment as well, the air travel industry is facing another round of headwinds and uncertainties. Early March national passenger data suggest some negative impact on travel is already happening.

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PIT passenger count changes over the last year 

The number of passengers enplaning and deplaning at PIT fell in recently released January data (456,076) compared to the January 2019 level (654,886), a decline of 30.4 percent. In December 2021, the passenger count was 22.3 percent below December 2019. These two months follow a much better performance last November when the passenger count, compared to the November 2019 count, was down only 16.1 percent. This was the best recovery month to date following the near halting of air travel in April 2020 when PIT passengers totaled only 32,447 with virtually no international travelers.

Looking back at travel data for 2021, improvement in the monthly passenger count last year relative to the same month in 2019 was dramatic through November. Bear in mind that in January 2021 the number of passengers was still 66.4 percent under the January 2019 level. However, by June, the passenger level compared to 2019 had improved markedly from January to stand just 30 percent below June 2019. July continued the improvement as restrictions were being loosened further with the decline from July 2019 to a much lower 22.2 percent.

As noted earlier, gains continued through November with a passenger count reading of 16.1 percent below 2019 but momentum did not continue as December slipped back to a drop of 22.3 percent from the 2019 reading. In January the downward slide continued with the passenger count down 30.4 percent from 2019.

To be clear, the bigger shortfall in January 2022 compared to the December 2021 decline was not due to seasonal factors. The January 2022 count was lower compared to January 2019 thereby accounting for normal seasonal factor impacts. Clearly, the problems that caused December’s numbers relative to 2019 to perform much worse than November were still having an effect in January 2022. While the COVID variant no doubt affected January travel, it is not clear why December saw such a large drop.

Comparison to national air travel statistics

Official Department of Transportation statistics on air travel passenger counts lag several months; making direct comparisons to U.S. data for recent months not possible.  However, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reports daily the number of passengers entering airports at their security checkpoints. This number is a good and timely measure of the volume of air travel nationally. 

It does not match up perfectly with the monthly national enplanements and deplanements that are available much later because those stats include connecting passengers who do not pass through a checkpoint going from flight to flight at the same airport.  At many airports—such as Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Denver and other large city airports—a huge proportion of travelers are connecting passengers.

But for smaller airports without major hub carriers such as PIT, the TSA checkpoint data are a reasonable proxy for national air travel and to use for comparison to passenger counts at PIT.   

How do the checkpoint data showing percent changes from the same month in 2019 compare to the PIT experience over the last year?  Interestingly, the pattern of improvement of TSA data and PIT passengers through the months of 2021 relative to 2019 was very similar through December.  The table compares the national and PIT performances in 2021 as measured by the percent change from the same month in 2019.

Throughout 2021, until December, PIT passenger gains improved almost in lockstep with the national increases in passengers. In December 2021, PIT’s performance fell behind the national numbers and in January, as the national count failed to sustain the improvements of earlier months, PIT experienced an even worse setback, dropping 30 percent below the 2019 figure. There are no obvious reasons for PIT’s pattern of tracking national performance to have suddenly disappeared.

Note that national air travel also had a setback in January, dropping 22.5 percent below the 2019 reading. No doubt the COVID Omicron variant played a significant role in the decline. PIT passengers fell in January in tandem with the national setback. But PIT numbers did not reflect any recovery that was greater than the national drop in December.

On a more positive note, TSA data show a significant upturn in travel in February with a shortfall of 15.6 percent compared to 2019 with a daily average of 1.73 million people going through check points (January daily average was 1.48 million).  Even more encouraging, February showed much stronger gains in the second half of the month with travel from Feb. 18 to Feb. 28 averaging 1.99 million—only 10 percent below the 2019 level.

These national data are somewhat encouraging for PIT, at least for the February count. With a return to travel as robust as the late February figures show, there is reason to believe that PIT passenger counts will see marked gains compared to the December and January experience as well. Unfortunately, March is likely to pose a new set of difficulties for air travel.

The reality is that non-hub airports must rely on the local market for travelers, whether local residents flying out or visitors coming to the region for business, family or tourist reasons.  In a region with little population or employment growth, the prospects for air travel passenger growth will be much weaker than for areas that are growing rapidly, such as Nashville, Austin or Raleigh, for example.      

PIT has been incredibly and uniquely fortunate to have had access to a large sum of gaming tax revenue—as provided by the state Legislature—and to have natural gas reserves on the property that are accessible through fracking that generates additional revenue. And in recent years, it received a special dollop of federal funds from COVID stimulus spending.

But what of the future? The war in Ukraine and its impact on fuel costs and the economy and demand for air travel, especially international travel, could be substantial over the coming months. At the same time, with the effects of COVID waning, there is reason to expect an increasing willingness to fly.

In short, the future for travel in the near term is facing a combination of unusual and hard to assess factors.  At the same time, the fundamentals for passenger growth near term and long term at PIT are not very encouraging compared to many other areas of the country.

PIT passenger counts and ongoing problematic issues

Overview

The number of passengers boarding and deplaning at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) in November 2021 picked up markedly from November 2020 but remained 16.1 percent below the November 2019 level.  International travel remained 57 percent behind the two-year earlier reading while domestic passengers were off by 15.3 percent. 

At the same time, in a very positive development, cargo at PIT has surged by 43 percent during the 24 months from November 2019 to last November. However, November 2021 airport operations at PIT were still 7.3 percent lower than two years ago.

National stats

The latest official Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) national data show passenger enplanements down 19.4 percent in September 2021 from September 2019.  PIT’s passenger total was 23.8 percent lower for September 2021 than in September 2019, lagging the U.S. recovery toward returning to pre-pandemic levels. 

However, as measured by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint count, nationally passengers were down 23.7 percent last September compared to 24 months earlier. Note that the FAA enplanement count for September 2019 was 11 million greater than the TSA checkpoint count and 12 million higher than the checkpoint level in September 2021, possibly owing to the fact that enplanements include connecting passengers while TSA checkpoints only count those arriving at the entrance to the gate area of the airport.

In short, the TSA measure, while useful as an indication of the gains or lack of gains from two years earlier, is not perfect. Nonetheless, looking at the 24-month change in passengers from November 2019 to November 2021 at PIT, the two measures line up fairly close, likely due to the fact that PIT does not have a significant number of connecting passengers. The TSA count was lower by 15.9 percent compared to a shortfall of 16.1 percent at PIT.  It remains to be seen if the FAA national enplanement data will show a bigger gain than PIT over the 24-month November-to-November period as it did for September.

It is noteworthy that the apparent national passenger count progress that was seen from September through November has not continued. Weak numbers around Christmas caused the TSA count for December to lose a bit of ground in terms of closing the gap with the December 2019 figure, slipping slightly to a shortfall of 16.2 percent. Thus far in early 2022, there has been a significant impact on air travel from the Omicron variant. During the first 10 days of January, the TSA count was trailing the January 2019 level by 20 percent. It is almost certain that the effect on flight cancellations was being felt at PIT as well.

Other airports

It is well known that airports and economies in different parts of the country have had very different responses to the Covid pandemic. This Brief will examine three airports, Nashville, Tampa and Philadelphia for the extent of recovery from the November 2019 traffic volume through November 2021.  Data for all three are the latest available. December figures will not be available for a few more weeks.

Nashville’s passenger count in November 2021 was one percent higher than in November 2019.  Current figures are not broken down by domestic and international travelers. The growth at Nashville over the pre-pandemic period was remarkable. The passenger count from November 2015 to November 2019 climbed 56.2 percent compared to PIT’s 16 percent. Thus, despite the pandemic, the Nashville air travel momentum has relatively quickly returned passenger volume to pre-pandemic levels. This is consistent with overall growth in the area’s economy.

The Tampa airport saw November 2021 passengers still 2 percent below the November 2019 level. A domestic increase of 1.5 percent was offset by a large 69 percent decline in international travel.  Over the November 2015 to 2019 period, Tampa’s passenger count was fairly anemic at only 14 percent. But it has shown considerable persistence and strength, especially domestic travel, following the worst of the pandemic’s impact to stand just 2 percent below the November 2019 reading.

At the Philadelphia airport it has been a very tough two years since November 2019 with total passengers 29.1 percent lower in November 2021. Domestic was 26.8 percent lower and international was off by 52.9 percent. Moreover, the Philadelphia airport saw very sluggish gains over the period 2015 to 2019 with total passengers a scant 3.5 percent higher. Obviously, the Philadelphia airport gains have been far less robust than the national for some time. Indeed, it fell in airport rankings from 18th to 20th busiest between 2010 and 2019.

PIT comparisons

While PIT maintained its ranking of 46th from 2010 to 2019, bear in mind that it was 24th busiest in 2000. Moreover, the peak level of passenger traffic at PIT occurred in 1997. In short, the passenger trajectory has not been good. Meanwhile, Cincinnati and Cleveland have also seen major collapses in ranking from 2000 to 2019 with Cincinnati falling from 22nd to 49th and Cleveland dropping from 34th busiest to 45th.

At the same time, the Nashville airport rose from 38th to 31st busiest over the 2010 to 2019 period after climbing from 42nd in 2000 to 38th in 2010.  Tampa International also moved up in rank from 29th to 27th over the 2010 to 2019 after standing at 28th in 2000.

In sum, major airports in Pennsylvania and Ohio have fallen behind since 2000 in terms of keeping up with national gains or the performance in Nashville or Tampa.

Failure of subsidies

Struggles at PIT to grow passenger counts have not been very successful.  Attempts to generate increased passenger levels have focused on subsidizing carriers such as OneJet, WOW and British Airways, for example. There have been no discernible lasting positive effects from any of these efforts.  

OneJet was an embarrassing disaster.  Subsidies to WOW and British Airways just made it cheaper for regional passengers to fly to Europe.  WOW is now gone.  British Airways halted service at the outbreak of the pandemic.  There have been no airport studies to show how many Europeans flew on these carriers to the Pittsburgh region. Without substantial numbers of incoming European visitors to the region, all the promised benefits of the subsidies disappear.

And worse, subsidizing local travelers to fly on British Airways through the money given to the airline means that more local people will fly to Europe and spend money helping European economies. Then, too, the fares paid go directly to British Airways accounts.  But using tax dollars for these flights is glamorous and gets headlines.

British Airways says it plans to resume taxpayer subsidized flights to PIT in early June.

Air travel per passenger has been very costly over the last 20 months.  Billions of federal dollars have kept airports open and planes in the air with practically no airport layoffs when traffic was greatly depressed, producing enormous increased operations costs per passenger not borne by ticket prices.  

Now, the Pittsburgh airport is building a new facility at great expense with little reasonable expectation of traffic ever returning to the levels seen in the late 1990s. The irony is that hundreds of millions of dollars in gaming tax revenue will be used to build the new facility that could be used for other needed facilities or for education or to be used to reduce other taxes. 

Sadly, reality, recognition of past mistakes and the concept of opportunity cost never entered into the decision to reconfigure the airport’s landside terminal.

PIT’s performance over the last two decades

Summary: Activity at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. With a terminal built to the specifications of USAir (later, USAirways), PIT has seen its fortunes fall in concert with that ill-fated airline.  Once a major USAirways hub, PIT is now relegated to serving mostly local origination and destination passengers.

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Even before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, USAirways was in serious financial trouble.  As the Institute noted in a March 2000 report (Report #2000-05), “USAirways, similarly, is currently the least efficient major air carrier in its industry, a situation that requires a long-term remedy.”  The report noted that ranked by cost per available seat mile (ASM), USAirways was the highest of the major carriers. 

In late 2000, USAirways proposed merging with United Airlines.  The proposal was denied by federal regulators. 

Not long after that, saddled with high costs and not enough passengers, USAirways filed for its first bankruptcy reorganization in 2002 (Policy Brief, Vol.2, No. 27).  And, as reported by the Post-Gazette in a recent retrospective (covering the period since 9/11/2001), the airline abruptly canceled its leases at PIT in 2003 as it exited bankruptcy—leases that contained provisions for the airline to pay a large share of the cost of the 1992 terminal. 

After the second bankruptcy filing in 2004 the airline dropped PIT as a hub, causing passenger counts at the airport to plummet. After combining with America West and regaining financial viability, USAirways acquired American Airlines in a 2013 merger and adopted the American name for the combined carrier (Policy Brief Vol. 13, No. 41). 

Passenger activity at PIT

The Allegheny County Airport Authority’s relationship with USAirways was an important factor in construction of a $1 billion terminal in 1992. Significant increases in passenger counts and flights were promised.  As the Institute wrote in a 1999 report (Report #1999-13), “Passenger traffic at PIT was forecast by planners to reach 30 million by 2000.  In fact, passenger traffic declined in 1998 and is expected to decline again in 1999.  Despite PIT’s status as a major ‘hub’ for USAirways, traffic has never reached 21 million passengers.  It currently ranks 24th among the busiest airports.” 

Of course, that was just the beginning of PIT’s slide in enplanement ranking. Indeed, 20 years after slipping to 24th, 2019 data rank PIT as the 46th busiest airport in the country.

In 1997 the airport posted its all-time record at 20.7 million passengers—enplaning and deplaning.  Enplaning and deplaning counts include any passengers who are boarding or departing a plane and captures the hub activity of an airport.  In contrast, origination and destination (O&D) passengers count only those passengers who either begin or end their travels at that airport—i.e., not making a connection. 

When USAirways dropped PIT as a hub, it became mostly an O&D airport and heavily reliant on the local population and businesses for passengers.  A USAirways spokesperson at the time said “The studies that were done did not show economic growth in Pittsburgh.  Businesses were not growing in Pittsburgh.  Businesses were leaving.”  In short, the airline did not see Pittsburgh as a growing area. At the same time, it was also rapidly building a hub in Charlotte and had a lot of hub activity in Philadelphia and Phoenix where America West was headquartered. PIT was too costly and geographically no longer advantageous as a hub.

At the time of the first USAirways bankruptcy, in 2002, PIT had 15.11 million domestic O&D passengers.  This count fell rather steadily as flights were reduced until 2013 when only 7.47 million O&D passengers—a drop of 51 percent from 2002—used the airport.  This was the lowest point in many years.  It did begin to climb but reached only 9.2 million O&D passengers in 2019—23 percent higher than in 2013 but merely 60 percent of the 2002 count.   

Comparing PIT to other airports

How does PIT’s record stack up with other airports around the country? 

This analysis will use a comparison group of 10 similarly sized airports— Cincinnati; Cleveland; Columbus; Fort Myers (FL); Indianapolis; Kansas City (MO); Sacramento; San Antonio; San Jose and Santa Ana—and only domestic O&D passenger counts.  It will also break the time frame up into two pieces, from 2002-2013 and then 2013-2019. 

The year 2013 represents PIT’s lowest point of O&D passengers over the last 30 years.  From 2002-2013, PIT’s loss of 51 percent was not the largest drop in this sample.  Cincinnati, once a Delta hub in the early 2000s, saw its O&D passenger count fall 73 percent. Meanwhile, San Jose (-17 percent), Cleveland (-13 percent) and Kansas City (-6 percent) also posted declines during this period.  For all U.S. airports, the domestic O&D passenger count rose 17 percent.  The other airports in the sample all had increases, led by Fort Myers (47 percent) while Sacramento’s O&D passengers ticked up just 2 percent.

All O&D data is from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

More recently, over the period from 2013-19, PIT’s O&D climbed a healthy 23 percent. However, in this 10-airport group, it was better only than Cleveland (13 percent), Santa Ana (16 percent) and Kansas City (19 percent).  It trailed the other seven airports.  Cincinnati had the largest jump (60 percent) followed by San Jose (55 percent) and Sacramento (50 percent).  For all U.S. airports the rise in O&D passengers was 26 percent. 

Comparing flight growth

In 2002, there were nearly 242,000 domestic flights at PIT.  In this sample of airports, it was second behind Cincinnati (383,500).  PIT’s low point for flights came in 2014 when only 99,700 flights were recorded.  Still, for this 10-airport group it ranked third highest behind Kansas City (113,770) and Cleveland (108,700). 

By 2019 the number of domestic flights at PIT had risen 16 percent from 2014 to 115,300, the second most behind San Jose (139,700).  It is worth noting that all but two airports—Cleveland and Kansas City—had increases in the number of domestic flights from 2014 to 2019.  Noteworthy, however, is the fact that the number of flights at PIT in 2019 was only 48 percent of the 2002 count.

PIT performance in the pandemic

The pandemic of 2020 disrupted air travel even more than the terrorist attacks of 2001.  With lockdowns of businesses and restrictions on travel both domestically and internationally, airlines and airports suffered huge declines in passengers and flights. For all U.S. airports, domestic passenger counts in 2020 came in at 335.1 million—just 41 percent of 2019’s 811.5 million domestic passengers. PIT’s 2020 total domestic O&D passenger count of 3.5 million was 38 percent of 2019.  For this sample, PIT’s total is better than only Cincinnati (3.4 million) and Columbus (3.1 million).

BTS data is available only through June 2021 when the pandemic was showing signs of waning.  Through June, 2.7 million domestic O&D passengers used PIT.  Projected over 12 months, it implies about 5.4 million passengers—about 60 percent less than in 2019 (9.2 million).  The BTS data does not yet cover most of the busy summer travel season when passenger counts were much stronger, so the final tally for the year may be higher.  But travel will unlikely approach 2019 levels as the pandemic is still very much a part of the environment as of this writing. 

When compared to the 10-airport sample, this projected total has PIT finishing in the middle of the pack in January-June 2021 domestic O&D passengers carried.

Conclusion

Over the last 20 years, PIT has had an interesting run of events. With a new terminal built as a hub for USAirways, its fortunes fell as the airline declared two bankruptcies and eventually dropped the airport as a hub. The airport was left with tremendous debt in the wake of the airline’s decline for the cost of that facility.  With the help of taxpayers, as the state Legislature moved gaming proceeds to help retire that debt, it shook the yoke of USAirways. 

But change was in the offing as PIT went from a hub to a primarily origination and destination airport dependent upon local travelers—and for that matter the local economy.  And as we have well-documented over the years, the local economy has failed to keep up with national growth.  As we have also documented, the Airport Authority began using subsidies to lure new carriers, including WOW, Condor, OneJet and British Airways. All have failed completely to produce the predicted sustained travel, just as the Institute warned they would.

In this environment, PIT has announced an ambitious terminal construction plan.  Once priced at about $1 billion, expected costs have already escalated to nearly $1.4 billion.  Much like the 1992-built terminal, PIT claims it will be paid for by the airlines.  Given recent history, and travel that has been negatively affected by the pandemic, this is a project that should not be undertaken.

Passengers and operations data at PIT

Summary: While passengers have been returning to air travel, their numbers are still well below the pre-pandemic level.  This is true across the nation as it is at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT).  However, PIT has not fared nearly as well as several other airports in large part due the region’s less than favorable economic climate.  Subsidizing airlines has been a failed strategy that should not continue. 

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Passengers

Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) data through March 2021 are available on the Allegheny County Airport Authority (ACAA) website. The numbers point to a meaningful pickup in passenger count (enplaned and deplaned) in March from the December, January and February totals.  At 358,622, the March domestic passenger total was the highest since the pandemic struck and stood at 56.2 percent lower than the pre-pandemic March 2019 level. For the previous 11 pandemic months domestic passenger counts ranged from 96 percent below the year-earlier level last April to 64.1 percent in October and were still at 65 percent below in February of this year.  Thus, the March figure seems to point to the beginning of a significant pickup in air travel.

Note however that international travel has been essentially zero since last April. There were only 474 passengers in March 2021. In March 2019, the count was 17,920, still a relatively small share of total passengers; the domestic count in March 2019 was 819,641.  As of now, there are no non-stop flights from PIT to Europe.  WOW, CONDOR and British Airways have left the market. There are seasonal flights scheduled to the Caribbean and Mexico.

Operations and cargo

Meanwhile, on a more positive note, aircraft operations at PIT have fared much better than passenger counts. In May 2020, operations fell 64 percent below the May 2019 reading. They rebounded markedly and by July were only 40 percent behind the year-earlier number. The monthly totals remained in the 40 to 44 percent range below the 12-month-ago readings. There was a downward blip in February to 49 percent before rebounding to just 36 percent lower in March compared to March 2019. The implication of the much greater rise in operations than passengers is that the percentage of empty seats remained very high during the last year.

It is important to note that cargo volume handled at PIT remained near pre-pandemic levels most months in 2020 with a couple down 7 to 9 percent from the 12-month earlier figure with August the worst at 14 percent. The rest ranged from plus 4 to minus 6 percent compared to a year earlier.  For 2020 as a whole cargo was down only 4.8 percent. That’s fairly remarkable in light of the severity of the economic downturn.

In March 2021, cargo volume rose 15.6 percent above March 2019 and 27 percent above March 2020 clearly pointing to stronger activity.

PIT and U.S. air travel compared

How do the passenger data for PIT compare to the national numbers? Nationally, there are two gauges of airline passengers.  One, the Federal Aviation Administration reports data for its measure of passenger counts. That data show a difference in a national travel rebound compared to PIT since June 2020. However, during the March through June 2020 period, the drop in domestic passengers, in terms of percentage decline from 12 months earlier, for both PIT and the U.S., tracked closely together, ranging from 52 percent in March to a high of 96 percent in April and falling to 78 percent in June. 

After June, the U.S. counts started to improve more rapidly than PIT. In September, the PIT count was down 68.6 percent from September 2019 while the U.S. number was down 62.7 percent. And in January the U.S. count was lower by 60.5 percent from the 12-month-ago level and PIT was down 66.8 percent. It is important to bear in mind that for the national total percentage number to be 60.5, there are some airports with even better numbers.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also maintains a national daily “throughput” count of all people processed at checkpoints, which is a reasonable approximation of the numbers of passengers headed to the gates. The good news is that since January there has been a significant upturn in the number of people going through checkpoints across the country as measured by the percentage of travelers compared to the count for the same year-ago month prior to the pandemic. 

In February the throughput was down 56 percent from a year before, March was lower than March 2019 by 48.1 percent (PIT was down 56 percent in March) and April’s TSA count was just 38.2 percent below April 2019.  All this points to significant gains in passenger count nationally and suggests fairly strongly that the PIT passenger count for April, which should be available soon, will be much improved as well.

Bear in mind that the TSA data include both domestic and international passengers and, thus, the national count might improve faster than PIT because of the absence of any flights to or from Europe at PIT.

Developments affecting current and future activity at PIT

Despite efforts to generate passenger counts at PIT through subsidies to both domestic and international flights, the airport has lagged well behind the average passenger increase in the top 50 airports. Between 2009 and 2019 (the year before the Covid-19 pandemic which cratered air travel) passenger totals at the top 50 airports rose 36 percent. PIT passengers climbed only 19.1 percent resulting in PIT dipping from its 45th rank to 46th.

What’s worse, PIT passengers rose only one percent from 2018 to 2019 while the top 50 average climbed 3.6 percent. Across the state, the Philadelphia International Airport also performed poorly over the 10 years with passengers rising only 6.7 percent from 2009 to 2019, causing its ranking to drop from 18th to 20th.

PIT’s halting and lackluster performance stands in marked contrast to many airports around the country. Four, in particular, stand out over the 2009-to-2019 period. Austin with 111.3 percent growth in passengers climbed from 44th to 32nd largest. Love Field in Dallas had a gain of 119.9 percent and its ranking rose from 50th to 33rd. Nashville had a 10-year increase of 103.8 percent and climbed from 39th to 31st largest.

Raleigh-Durham had a smaller but still impressive 56.9 percent gain over the period but posted an impressive 10.6 percent rise from 2018 to 2019 that boosted its ranking two spots, from 39th to 37th.  Nashville and Austin also had double-digit jumps in traffic from 2018 to 2019.

On the other end of the scale, airports in Cleveland and Cincinnati fell sharply in the rankings between 2009 and 2019; Cleveland from 35th to 45th and Cincinnati from 32nd and to 49th.  

The strong gains at Austin, Nashville, Love Field and Raleigh-Durham reflect strong underlying economic growth and population gains.  Relatively slow employment and population growth in Ohio’s and Pennsylvania’s metro regions are reflected in their airports’ performances. Airports in areas with strong economic growth are attracting new flights from carriers looking to grow their business.

PIT’s mistake

PIT’s efforts to increase passenger counts substantially by subsidizing travel were a huge mistake as events have borne out. OneJet, WOW, CONDOR, British Airways and Delta show that to be the case. Even with the $3 million offered to British Airways the carrier has decided to drop the PIT-Heathrow flights. Have the subsidy payments stopped?  Will there be any recouped money? The airport management is silent on the arrangements, other than to predict that BA will return in 2022.  British Airways has not commented.

The bottom line is that unless the Allegheny County Airport Authority can recruit a major hub carrier as it had with USAirways 20 years ago, passenger counts at PIT will depend primarily on the growth in population and employment. Attempting to grow the region’s economy by subsidizing flights is never going to work.  The region and the state need a much more business-friendly environment. And not an environment that depends on subsidizing companies such as Volkswagen, Sony and Aquion. Or professional sports teams.

Conclusion

High taxes, poor labor climate, environmental overreach and a generally unfavorable tax and regulatory climate for business—including legally questionable Covid-19 mandates—all point to a state and region that are not business friendly, especially in comparison to fast growing states.

The airport is not the engine that will pull the region’s economy.  It is part of the infrastructure that permits and facilitates growth. Unless a huge hub operation comes to the airport and creates large boosts in employment and income and sales opportunities for local vendors, the best thing PIT can do is to run the most efficient-, lowest- and competitive-cost operations possible. Offering subsidies to airlines is wasteful and becomes a habit that it is hard to break because carriers come to expect them.

Troubles at Pittsburgh International Airport

Summary: Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) had a very bad year in 2020 in terms of passenger traffic and aircraft operations—takeoffs and landings.  PIT is owned and operated by the Allegheny County Airport Authority (ACAA).

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Passenger count and other airport activity in 2020

Since the Covid-19 pandemic started to spread widely in early March, the 10 months from March through December saw the total passenger count fall 73 percent with domestic down 72.3 percent and international down 94.5 percent compared to the same period in 2019. For the year as a whole, including January and February, domestic passengers were down 62.1 percent and international passengers were down 83.8 percent from the 2019 totals. All airport activity and financial data are taken from ACAA website.

April was the hardest hit month for travel as massive restrictions were placed on the economy to slow the spread of the virus. Only 32,413 domestic passengers enplaned and deplaned, a 96 percent collapse from April 2019. Traffic picked up slightly through October reaching 306,491 but remained 65 percent behind 2019.  The count then fell, reaching only 240,211 in December, 70 percent below the year-earlier figure.  International travel was essentially nonexistent from mid-March through December.

The decline in passengers using the airport was accompanied by a big drop in aircraft operations during the 10 months. The biggest drops from the same month in 2019 occurred in April and May with declines of 62.9 and 64.4 percent.  In December, aircraft operations remained 43.5 percent behind the year-ago number and for 2020 overall operations were down 38 percent from 2019’s total.

Unfortunately, the ongoing rapid spread of Covid-19 poses an ongoing obstacle to the return of pre-pandemic passenger levels and aircraft operations. Indeed, the changes in the way business is conducted with more internet usage and work from home point to a very slow return to the earlier patterns of air travel.  It could take several years. And 2021 will very probably see only modest improvement from the second half of 2020 passenger counts. 

While passenger counts were falling dramatically, the level of cargo handling at the airport held up well in 2020. For the year cargo was down only 4.8 percent from 2019 and posted a small gain in December. In April, May and June, when passenger counts were off over 85 percent from the same period in 2019, cargo was down only 75 percent. August was the worst month with a drop of 14.5 percent before rebounding through the rest of the year. Cargo obviously was not subject to the same restrictions—mandated or self-imposed passenger travel.

Mail handled at the airport rose significantly in 2020 climbing 9.9 percent over the 2019 level. Double-digit percent gains were posted in several months hard hit by Covid.  December saw a jump of 62 percent compared to December 2019.  As yet, there is no explanation for the big rise in mail activity. Although an increase in cyber-shopping could be a possible explanation.

Estimating revenue impact of activity slowdown

The declines in air travel passengers and aircraft operations are certain to have a significant direct and substantial impact on airport revenues. The following figures show the 2019 actual operating revenue by major category (taken from the 2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR)) and, in parentheses, the amount the Airport Authority had budgeted for 2020. All figures are rounded to the nearest thousand. These figures will be used below to estimate impacts on 2020 revenue.  

For 2019 landing and terminal fees, $59,555,000 (2020 budget $56,578,000); other aeronautical, $8,908,000 ($8,716,000); parking, $41,631,000 ($44,087,000); rental car, $12,510,000 ($14,250,000); terminal concessions, $10,707,000 ($10,927,000); hotel and utility sales, $8,939,000 ($7,900,000) and Allegheny County Airport, $2,812,000 ($2,865,000).

In addition, PIT imposes a passenger facility charge and a customer facility charge. The passenger facility charge is a ticket surcharge allowed by the FAA that is used to pay for projects involving safety, security, capacity and noise reduction.  The charge is set at $4.50 per ticket. The customer facility charge is a state-approved add-on fee for rental car transactions at the airport. In 2020 the charge was $6 per day for up to seven days. It was $5.50 in 2019.

Auditors assign the revenue from these fees to the category of non-operating revenue. In 2019, facility charges amounted to $28,516,000, reflecting the passengers using PIT. By way of comparison, in 2014, these charges produced $20,544,000. Thus, this revenue rose 39 percent during the five years. It was not due to such a large increase in passengers and likely reflects higher rates charged. Two other providers of substantial revenue in 2019 were state gaming at $12,400,000 and royalties from natural gas production on airport property at $10,122,000.

As of this writing, there are no monthly data publicly available for any revenue categories for 2020 and the CAFR for 2020 is unlikely to be available before April.

While the actual extent of revenue declines from 2019 or shortfalls relative to budgeted amounts for 2020 will not be known for a few months, it is reasonable to estimate what happened to them based on passenger and operations declines. 

One way to approximate passenger-related revenue declines would simply apply the percentage drop in passengers to the revenue expected in the 2020 budget. Of course, to the degree that lease agreements with vendors have fixed or minimum payments the estimates of revenue shortfalls from expected will be too large and merely point to huge losses for the vendors whose incomes are based on activity at the airport.

Parking, rental car, hotel, passenger facility and concessions revenue would be most affected by the passenger count drop. Landing and terminal fees would be impacted by the reduction in aircraft operations. Total passenger count was down 62.7 percent for the year and aircraft operations were down 38 percent.

For example, applying the passenger drop to parking revenue of $44.1 million implies a loss of $27.6 million; for rental car fees, $8.9 million; for terminal concessions, $6.9 million; for hotel and other, $4.9 million.  Note that the percentage decline in passengers was from the 2019 level. Assuming the budget forecast assumed some growth in passengers, the calculations of revenue loss are just slightly lower than they would have been using a higher expected count.

For aeronautical related revenues, the losses would likely track with the 38 percent reduction in flight operations and lead to a decline from expected amounting to $21.5 million. All told, the operating revenue loss could be close to $70 million.  How much was defrayed by contractual agreements will not be known until the audited financial data are made available.  

In non-operating revenue, the passenger and customer facility charges would fall $17.9 million short of expected. Presumably, the gaming tax money was paid in full at $12.4 million.  How the gas royalty payments fared in 2020 are not known to the public.  But a repeat of 2019’s $10.1 million should be a reasonable approximation. If President Biden proceeds with the fracking ban as many in his party want, the royalty payments will diminish as new wells are prohibited and old wells produce less gas.

Finally, note that the federal government provided $36 million to the Airport Authority in the CARES stimulus program funds. According to Elaine Chao, the then-secretary of Transportation, the money would be used to maintain salary and benefits (WTAE-TV, June 2020). Evidently it was used for employee pay since there were no announced layoffs at PIT.

What private company could see a prolonged 63 percent decline in its business and not be forced to make staffing level cuts?

Airport expenses

There are no publicly available data for spending at the airport for 2020. It is reasonable to assume that operating expenses were close to the revised budget amount of $104.6 million included in the recently published 2021 budget (available on the authority’s website). The original 2020 budget called for $108.36 million. (There is a question about the 2020 budget expense projection. There are two figures for total operating expenses in the 2020 budget document$108.36 million on page 2 and $114.4 million on page 5). 

It is very interesting that the 2021 budget shows only projected expenditures.  There are no budget projections for operating or non-operating revenue. It is an odd budget indeed that has no estimates of revenue. The Airport Authority plans an increase in operating expenses from a revised 2020 budget figure of $104.59 million to $109.95 million in 2021.

By category, wages and benefits will rise $1.3 million from $42.3 million, suggesting no major staffing level changes are anticipated and, certainly, no layoffs. Professional services outlays are budgeted to jump from $22.6 million to $27.5 million.  That’s a hefty 22 percent rise. But no explanation is provided for the big jump.

The budget goes into great detail regarding capital projects which are projected to rise $2.6 million to $49.9 million.  The budget also details the sources of funding to cover the capital projects. 

It would appear that the Airport Authority knows it will need a lot more federal funding help in 2021.  To the extent that vendors have been very hard hit by the plunge in passengers and need a lot of financial help to stay in business, ACAA could be looking at a very weak flow of revenue compared to spending for many months.  However, the board did find money for a big raise and bonus for the authority’s CEO.

Overly optimistic ventures of bringing in more carriers through subsidy enticements failed to generate sustained passenger traffic as hoped or predicted. In fact, passenger counts have not risen as fast as nationally over the last few years and PIT remains stuck as the 47th busiest airport as of 2019 (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Airport Rankings) while other comparably sized airports have moved up in the rankings.

The reality is that the region PIT serves has not been growing in step with the nation or other regions in terms of population and jobs. Absent a major hub carrier, passenger traffic at PIT is driven by the size and vibrancy of the local economy.  Subsidizing people to travel out of the region makes no sense.  Subsidizing business travel is inefficient and wasteful if the region has a business climate and political views that are inimical to business startups, operations and growth. In a successful business climate, subsidies should not be needed.

The board of the Allegheny County Airport Authority must take a hard look at the realities that exist and take steps to prepare for unpleasant contingencies that are in store if the pandemic’s lasting effects produce a major long-term loss in air travel.  And it certainly needs to rethink subsidies altogether.

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.