PIT February passengers still well below pre-pandemic levels

Overview:  Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) suffered serious setbacks in passenger counts and operations during the COVID pandemic period that began in March 2020. Recovery has been underway for a couple of years but travel to and from the airport remains well below the pre-pandemic levels. This Policy Brief describes the ongoing shortfall of activity compared to the period before COVID hit.

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Passenger Count

Back on March 17, PIT officials announced that the February passenger count had improved to reach 93.7 percent of February 2019 levels. Or said another way, the February 2023 passenger count (domestic and international) was 6.3 percent below the same month in 2019.  (Note that the counts and operations data were not posted on the airport’s website until a week and a half later.)

Nonetheless, the reported decline would mark an impressive gain compared to the shortfalls posted last fall when the September through November average decline was well over 12 percent. Bear in mind the large 17 percent decline in December was caused by massive flight cancellations nationwide during the month.

While the 6.3 percent shortfall compared to February 2019 looks favorable, there are two things to bear in mind.  First, passenger counts were still growing through February 2020. The pandemic did not take hold in a meaningful way until March 2020.  Second, there was a significant 3 percent decline in passengers between January and February 2019, mainly because of a dip in domestic passengers. In 2020 and 2023, passenger totals rose slightly from January to February.

Notably, the count in February 2020 was 41,433 higher than in February 2019, a very healthy gain of 6.5 percent over the 12 months. But, in short, comparing the February 2023 to the February 2019 count is not the best measure of the air travel recovery at PIT.  A more accurate measure is to look at the 2023 figures compared to the 2020 levels.  Unfortunately, for March and following months of 2023, the pre-pandemic months of 2019 will be the pre-pandemic baseline.  Still, by ignoring the ongoing growth in travel through February 2020, the airport is downplaying the extent of the real passenger count decline compared to what was happening prior to COVID.

Not surprisingly, the decline in passengers from February 2020 to February 2023 is much larger than the 2019 to 2023 figure touted by the airport officials.  There were 81,488 fewer passengers in February 2023 than in February 2020, a drop of 12 percent and nearly double the 6.3 percent reported with international travelers falling by nearly 50 percent.

Operations

Another cause for concern is that aircraft operations in February remained well below the same month in 2019 (15 percent) and 15 percent behind the February 2020 reading.  Operations are defined by the Federal Aviation Administration as any aircraft landing or taking off.  Indeed, February operations remain well below the same month five years earlier in 2018, trailing by 14.6 percent. 2018 had the highest annual total of operations since 2016, the first year that annual totals were posted on their website. After February 2020, operations nosedived for many months, dipping to a yearly total of only 91,803, a far cry from the two years prior that averaged almost 150,000.  Operations began to pick up in 2021, rising to 108,464 and rose further to 121,650 in 2022.  However, unless the pace quickens sharply from the current levels over the rest of the year, 2023 total operations will remain 10 to 15 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

Cargo

The one area where the airport had enjoyed a strong increase in activity over the past few years was cargo handled.  In the years leading up to the impacts of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, cargo volume was enjoying a fairly strong upward trend.  From 2015 to 2019 annual cargo volume climbed fairly steadily by 19 percent. Indeed, even during the COVID year of 2020, after an initial weakening, cargo volume began to grow and continued to rise dramatically in 2021 when it posted its highest ever annual volume of 209,700,373 pounds—a jump of 27 percent from the previous high set in 2019.

Volume has declined since the spectacular levels of 2021, falling to 185,725,066 pounds in 2022.  Despite coming down from the 2021 record, the cargo volume in January and February 2023 held at levels above the same pre-pandemic months in 2020.

It is not clear whether the growth in cargo provides significant revenue opportunity for the airport, especially in comparison to passenger traffic, gate and landing fees, parking services, etc. Moreover, the cargo volume is not correlated with the number of aircraft operations as the last three years of data show.  While operations were plunging in 2020 and 2021, and were quite weak in 2022, cargo volume rose sharply from the second half of 2020 and stayed well above the long-term trend line through the end of 2020.

Undoubtedly, the circumstances attendant to the pandemic pushed a lot of freight onto airplanes that would have normally been carried by truck or involved far more internationally traded goods either inbound or outbound. Whether the increased cargo volume will continue remains to be seen.

Economic weakness

As earlier Policy Briefs have noted on multiple occasions, the level of passenger traffic at PIT depends to a significant extent on the strength of the economy, population, jobs and income in the region. And it is now well established (Policy Briefs Vol. 22, No. 18 and Vol. 23, No. 13) that population in the region, city and county is not growing and indeed is likely moving downward while nonfarm payroll employment has yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

Data from metro areas in several Right-to-Work states with low percentages of public-sector unionization have been studied (Policy Briefs Vol.23, No. 5 and Vol. 22, No. 17) and point to a strong correlation of passenger traffic gains at metro area airports and the vibrancy of the area’s economy, job increases and population growth.

Hoping to see large gains in passenger traffic in a region with a stagnant or shrinking economy and moribund job gains is just that—hope.  It is hope that is highly unlikely to be realized.

Conclusion

The efforts at PIT to expand air travel through the use of subsidies is a poor substitute for drastic changes in the region’s economic and business policies that are a drag on economic growth. A far more friendly labor climate is a must but will be difficult to achieve given the political power of unions, especially the public-sector unions.

Pittsburgh International woes continue

Summary: November 2022 passenger counts from Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) shows the facility struggling to regain levels experienced before the pandemic.  However, in metro areas with robust economies and non-hub airports, passenger traffic is up, showing that the performance of the local economy is more important than gimmicks like airline subsidies.

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November statistics from PIT show the airport continues to struggle to return to November 2019 pre-pandemic passenger levels, both domestic and international.  Moreover, airport operations—a measure including plane arrivals and departures—lagged further behind the same month in 2019.

Specifically, November 2022 total passengers were 12.3 percent short of the three-year-earlier figure while international passengers remained 34.2 percent below the November 2019 count notwithstanding the resumption of British Airways service to London earlier in the year. In a very negative development, November 2022 airport operations fell 21.1 percent behind the same month in 2019. Meanwhile, the only bright spot in the airport’s performance since the pandemic has faded dramatically.  While cargo handled was up 5 percent from November 2019, it fell 26.7 percent from the November 2021 reading.

By way of comparison the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) national checkpoint count for November was only 5.7 percent below the November 2019 reading.  Indeed, the TSA passenger tracker showed far more improvement toward 2019 levels than PIT has achieved.

December data for PIT were not available at the time of this writing.

The lagging recovery of passengers and the large decline in operations at PIT are very worrisome in light of the tremendous expenditures that are being made to build a new terminal facility.  But the inability to increase the passenger count should not be too surprising considering the near zero population growth in the region PIT serves (Policy Brief, Vol. 22, No.18).  Moreover, the failure of payroll employment to return to 2019 levels also points to a slow growth in incomes (Policy Brief, Vol. 23, No.3). Population, employment and income are, and will be, important determinants in air travel. 

PIT compared to more successful airports

As has been noted before, unless an airport is a hub airport it is basically part of transportation infrastructure for the area served. It is not in itself a driver of economic activity but a supporter of the area’s economy.  A comparison shows the importance of job growth and air travel.  Nashville’s airport saw its November 2022 passenger count rise 19 percent above the November 2019 reading.  Private employment in the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) in November rose 7.7 percent above its November 2019 posting.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh metro private jobs are still 38,000, or 3.5 percent, below the 2019 level and have risen only 3,000, or 0.3 percent, in 10 years.  The importance of economic strength and growth in non-hub airport traffic is clear. Unless PIT becomes a hub again, its passenger counts will languish along with the very slow or nearly nonexistent employment growth in the area economy.

The airport’s efforts to stimulate passenger growth by subsidizing travel is doomed to fail as a permanent solution to boosting passenger counts on two grounds. The primary objection is that subsidies merely help people in the area to fly out of the region who might not otherwise fly or to fly more often than they would have absent the subsidy.  Lower-cost flights should be provided by the carriers at their expense, not the airport’s. How does it help the Pittsburgh economy to use local dollars to subsidize area residents to leave the region and spend money?

Growing economies such as Nashville, Raleigh, etc., not only create travel demand for leisure and personal travel but their significant job growth also indicates that businesses are expanding and new businesses are coming into the region thus driving business travel as well.

For example, the performance of the Nashville area has been very strong, before the pandemic of 2020 and since. As noted earlier, from November 2019 to November 2022, private-sector employment climbed 7.7 percent compared to the shortfall of 3.5 percent in the Pittsburgh metro area in the same period. And over the last 10 years, Nashville jobs have climbed 40 percent. Pittsburgh-area private jobs are essentially flat compared to 10 years ago.

The Raleigh area has also had tremendous job gains with the private count up 10 percent from November 2019 to November 2022. and over the past 10 years jobs have increased 39 percent.

Airport rankings by passenger count (from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics) reflect the tremendous economic gains in the two right-to-work state metro areas.  Note that in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, Nashville’s airport ranked 31st among U.S. airports and Raleigh-Durham ranked 27th for domestic originating passenger enplanements. Note that using domestic originating passengers to rank airports eliminates the effects of hubbing activity.  On this measure PIT ranked 43rd.  In this ranking, Raleigh-Durham’s passenger count was 41 percent higher than PIT with Nashville’s count 40 percent above PIT.  Note for comparison that the Pittsburgh MSA’s population was 16 percent greater than the 13-county Nashville metro in 2019 and significantly larger than the Raleigh-Durham area.

In short, in a well-established economic region there is no substitute for growth in jobs, business activity and incomes to drive air travel.

Subsidies are not justified

Subsidization of travel beyond that which is implied in building and maintaining an airport is a policy that, once started, is hard to stop. Travelers get accustomed to it. But even worse, airlines use it as leverage as well.  What’s worse, the British Airways subsidy basically flows to travelers from the region to go overseas to spend money.  We have yet to see a report from the airport or British Airways that shows the percentage of passengers who are U.S. citizens and the percentage of foreigners traveling to Pittsburgh. And the claim of significant numbers of foreigners coming to Pittsburgh is the major factor in estimating the economic impact of the subsidy on the region.

The argument that it helps local business travelers who need to go to Europe is a weak one. Travel to Europe with one stop in New York or Philadelphia is available. And to the extent it benefits large companies who can afford the travel as opposed to small businesses that do not need overseas travel, it fails on fairness grounds. Just as subsidizing personal travel is likely to benefit people who can afford it over those who cannot.

The area had a Delta nonstop to Europe that was subsidized by the business community. Delta canceled that flight almost immediately after the British Airways subsidy was announced. Moreover, the ending of subsidies to WOW and Condor left only British Airways for direct flights to Europe.

Needed actions

The key to building passenger traffic at PIT—barring a carrier establishing a major hub—is not using subsidies for airlines. The primary factor is growth in the region’s economy and population.  New business startups and investment coming from other parts of the country or overseas will be crucial to achieving acceleration in the economy.

Accomplishing an economic revival in the region will require a dramatic shift in the business climate and the regulatory environment.  Otherwise, the airport will struggle to grow passengers and will continue to offer subsidies to artificially stimulate demand. It should be focused on lowering costs.  The cost of the new terminal will saddle the airport with bond payment costs for decades.  County and state help beyond that already in place through gaming dollars will eventually be needed.

Conclusion

But the airport, like Pittsburgh Regional Transit, Pittsburgh Public Schools and Pittsburgh city government, is locked into the same overly expensive pattern that is driven by union demands and long-term political concerns.  And taxpayers end up with the bills—a major reason jobs and population are not growing in the Pittsburgh metro area and, hence, the slow passenger gains at the airport.

Weakness in activity at Pittsburgh International Airport continued in October

Summary: Like the region’s employment recovery through October, activity at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) has yet to return to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019 or 2018, for that matter.

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Employment

Private-sector jobs in the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) for October 2022 stood at 1.052 million, the lowest October level since 2013 when employment was 1.0469 million. Indeed, in the 22 years from October 2000 to October 2022 private jobs in the Pittsburgh MSA rose a scant 2.3 percent—and they remain below the eight-year ago readings.  

The relatively good gains between 2016 and 2019 represented the best three-year gain in any period since 2000, except for a recovery from the deep 2009-2010 recession.  The 2016 to 2019 gains were wiped out by the pandemic. Then, too, it is noteworthy that jobs statewide have yet to recover to levels posted in 2019. 

The region’s job recovery falls below the national rate and trails far behind the growth in several metro areas, especially in the southern states (as outlined in Policy Brief Vol. 22, No. 32).  While employment gains are not the only driver of air travel demand, it is certainly a very important factor for an airport that is not a major hub.

Population growth has also been very anemic (Policy Brief, Vol. 22, No. 18). 

The loss of the USAirways hub in the early 2000s made a major dent in the region’s employment count as well as causing a large drop in flights and passenger boardings and deplanements at the airport.  While air transportation employment statistics are not shown separately in the MSA data, they are shown separately in the state figures. That data showed a decline of 11,000 air transport employees from 2001 to 2008 with most of that decline undoubtedly traceable to the loss of the USAirways’ hubbing activity at PIT.

Transportation and warehouse employment dropped by 8,300 from 46,100 in 2001 to 37,800 in 2008. Trucking jobs held steady over the same period.

State data also show a strong rise in warehouse employment over the period. These data, taken together, point to an air transportation jobs decline in the region of close to 10,000 over the seven-year period.  That represents a sizable share of the area’s poor jobs performance over the last two decades, both directly and indirectly, because of the multiplier effect that further weakened labor demand in the region.

Activity at PIT

More importantly, recent developments at PIT are not encouraging.  Total passenger counts at PIT remained 13.8 percent behind the October 2019 posting. This is a poorer performance than in September when the total passenger count was 11.8 percent under the 2019 figure.  Meanwhile, Transportation Security Administration national numbers for October showed a much smaller shortfall (5.5 percent) than PIT’s from October 2019’s count of people going through security check points. And, as has been noted in earlier Policy Briefs, the TSA count is a good comparison measure for non-hub airport passenger counts.

But it gets worse. The international passenger count at PIT in October was still 43 percent behind the October 2019 reading and 42 percent below the October 2018 level. This despite the return of the British Airways (BA) subsidized travel in June.

Moreover, airport operations remained 20 percent behind the 2019 October reading and nearly 22 percent below the October 2018 level.  And still more worrisome, cargo handled at the airport, which had picked up strongly in 2020 and 2021, nosedived by 28.6 percent in October below the year-earlier reading.  Even more alarming was the decline in the cargo level—6 percent lower than the October 2019 figure. Cargo handling had been the one bright spot in airport activity data.

More subsidies for British Airways 

In light of the dismal performance at PIT in recovering the loss in passenger count, especially international travel despite paying BA a hefty subsidy to bring flights to the airport, a junket of regional political and business leaders flew to London to entreat BA to add more daily flights. And a deal was struck. BA will add two more weekly flights beginning next spring for $500,000.  Nothing has been said about whether the current subsidy of $1.5 million per year for the current four weekly flights will be continued.

Note the comment by a BA official regarding the new flights, “We are delighted to be increasing our flight frequency from Pittsburgh to London next summer. … As the only airline to operate a direct route between Pittsburgh and London Heathrow, these additional flights will give our customers even greater flexibility when travelling to Britain and beyond.” (BlueSky, a webzine publication of the airport, Nov. 10, 2022).

Interestingly, there was no mention of British customers flying to the U.S. Is it because the overwhelming share of passengers are U.S. citizens traveling to England? This is very likely since the airport has never published the percentages of U.S. and European passengers. And that is important because estimates of the economic impact of the flights rely heavily on the number of foreign travelers to the region and spending money in the Pittsburgh area. Earlier estimates of the impact on the Pittsburgh region of BA flights were totally debunked (Policy Brief, Vol. 19, No. 14).

In the same BlueSky posting, an airport publicist writes, “The flexibility the additional frequencies offer to passengers isn’t just about departure and arrival times at PIT and LHR. They offer more chances to make connections to international routes that aren’t as frequent.”  Thus, even the airport’s own public relations department alludes to the added convenience for domestic travelers making connections at Heathrow.

The CEO of the Airport Authority weighed in on the need for the junket to convince BA to add flights.  “Pittsburgh is a global brand, and we need to tell that story whenever and wherever we get the chance. That’s vital to building partnerships and increasing international air service. Thanks to our partners at British Airways for taking the time to understand and believe in this market.”

If all that is true, if Pittsburgh is a standout market in the world, why is it necessary to go to great lengths to sell it?   How is it that after the time it has been operating at PIT, BA did not see the need to add flights?  Were they unaware of the “global brand” that justified more flights?

Drawbacks to subsidies

Subsidizing local citizens to fly to London is not a good or appropriate use of public money.  Local residents go to England and other points on to the continent and spend money.  Subsidies to the carrier and the ticket revenue for the carrier are dollars leaving the country before the passengers even arrive at their destinations abroad and spend more money.  Many might have traveled without the subsidy using a one-stop connection and most likely would have bought their tickets on a U.S. airline. Many others may not travel to Europe through PIT at all without the BA subsidy.

If subsidizing business travel is aimed at creating sales abroad then the counties in the region (especially Allegheny where the airport is located) should lower any tax that is levied on business so firms would have more dollars to spend on travel. Note the state corporate net income tax is slated to decline in 2023.

Lowering taxes is far fairer to other businesses that don’t have overseas dealings. Indeed, subsidizing companies to do overseas business by subsidizing the airlines is inherently unfair. Just as subsidizing personal travel is likely to benefit residents who are more affluent.  

Conclusion

The Pittsburgh regional economy has far bigger problems than lack of flights to Europe. Indeed, there are many options to get to London on one-stop flights for people who really need or want to go. As noted earlier, regional employment is not expanding, population growth is nearly non-existent, and the core city is essentially living on its past glories.

The problem is fundamental: Pittsburgh is not a business-friendly region.  Labor issues, taxes and the regulatory environment are major roadblocks to achieving the kind of growth many areas of the country are enjoying. 

All the special development programs and subsidizing this or that flavor-of-the-month sector, including air travel to England, are very poor substitutes for an economic climate that is business friendly.

Prospects for gas well output at Pittsburgh International have dimmed

Summary: In February 2013, the Allegheny County Airport Authority (ACAA) signed a lease with CNX Gas Company LLC to drill wells into the shale formations at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT).  That lease included bonus payments and royalties for gas produced.  The ACAA, at the time, offered to use the proceeds to lower airline rates.  This Brief looks at the production of those wells, the outlook for production and airport revenue from the operations thus far. Production data come from Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and financial data from the ACAA Annual Comprehensive Financial Reports (2015 through 2021).

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The lease included a nonrefundable bonus payment of $45.1 million to be paid to the ACAA from 2013-2018.  After that the lease became year-to-year with royalties being paid as gas is extracted.  It also contains “ground rent payments” for undeveloped acreage.  In 2021, royalty revenue was $8.2 million and the ground rent payment was $320,000 for total gas drilling revenues of $8.51 million. In 2020 total revenue was only $5.56 million.

Well production

Drilling began in July 2014 when ground was broken on six wells with an additional eight in September.  Twelve more were added in January 2015 for a total of 26 wells.  The six wells from July 2014 began producing in June 2016 and over the last seven months of the year produced a total of 4.9 million Mcf (thousand cubic feet).  Perhaps the delay in production was the result of a steep drop in the price of natural gas.  It fell 38 percent from 2014 to 2015, an annual average of $4.42 to $2.66 per Mcf.  It didn’t surpass the $3 mark until late 2016.  The table below shows annual production totals.

In 2017 the number of producing wells rose to 14 in March as the wells started in September 2014 became productive.  In 2017 the average annual price was $3.11.  The production total rose to 19.9 million Mcf—tripling output with the additional wells.  In 2018, those same 14 wells produced 22.01 million Mcf, the high-water mark since drilling began and a 10.6 percent increase over 2017. 

Then production began to decline.

In 2019, production came in at 16.09 million Mcf—a decline of 26.9 percent from a year earlier.  It then fell even further in 2020 to 11.15 million Mcf (30.7 percent) and again to 8.87 million Mcf in 2021 (20.4 percent).  All output was from the same 14 wells that were drilled in 2014.  Interestingly, none of the 12 wells drilled in 2015 have produced to date.  And in 2019, six of the 12 were made inactive, reducing the number of active wells to 20. 

In 2022, through August (most recent figures), production had reached 5.7 million Mcf—projecting out to just 8.54 million Mcf for the year. This represents a further reduction of 3.8 percent.  Two more wells from the 2015 slate were also made inactive, lowering the total number of active wells to just 18. The lack of output from the 2015 wells, but kept on the active list for several years, suggests they were deemed to have relatively small output and revenue potential and would have required a very high market price to economically justify starting production.  The deactivations in 2019 and 2022 indicate that hopes they will ever be profitable have waned dramatically even as the average annual price of natural gas in 2021 rose to $3.76, the highest average since 2014.

Moreover, given that production of the 2014 wells has fallen continuously since 2018, combined with the facts that no new wells have been started since 2015 and eight of the ones drilled that year have been deactivated, it is reasonable to conclude that the future of natural gas production and gas revenues at PIT is growing dimmer each year.     

Revenues

From the 2021 ACAA annual comprehensive financial report, “Net revenues from the natural gas lease have been used to reduce airline rates and charges and for capital expenditures, including economic development, at the Airport.” 

Upon signing the lease in 2013, ACAA received $7.14 million as part of the bonus payment.  That increased to $9.07 million in 2014 and then $10.19 million in 2015, for a total of $26.41 million without any of the wells producing.  Once production began in 2016, gas drilling revenues were boosted by royalty payments ($3.2 million) and reached $13.92 million.  According to ACAA, through 2016 “all bonus and rent payments covering the initial term were received.”   

The peak revenue from gas was reached in 2017 when ACAA collected $25.98 million from gas production ($15.3 million in royalties) and ground rental payments. Even though 2018 represented the height of gas production, gas revenues fell 26 percent to $19.27 million—$17.2 million in royalty payments—as rental payments dropped. Revenues then fell sharply to $10.12 million in 2019 ($9.8 million in royalties) and then even further to $5.56 million ($5.2 million in royalties) in 2020 before rebounding to $8.51 million in 2021—the lowest gas drilling revenue since the lease was signed in 2013.  The prospects for 2022 appear a little brighter as the price has climbed 81 percent from 2021 (through August 2022). 

As noted above, revenues were pledged to “reduce airline rates,” among other uses. In the explanatory section of the comprehensive financial reports, the ACAA mentions that some of the money is allocated to reducing airline rates.  In 2014 and 2015, the ACAA dedicated about half of the gas revenues to reducing airline rates—$5.2 million of $10.19 million in 2015 and $4.9 million of $9.07 million in 2014.  In 2016 that ratio was a bit higher ($8.4 of the $10.7 million bonus payment).  In 2017 and 2018, a total of $7.2 of $12.8 million was allocated for this purpose. 

The ratios began to fall as the terminal modernization plan was approved in 2017 and natural gas drilling revenues were pledged to be part of the financing plan to pay for the nearly $1.4 billion, and climbing, project.  With drilling revenues of $10.12 million in 2019 and another $5.56 million in 2020, the ACAA allocated $3.8 million to airline rate reduction and $7.9 million in capital projects—most likely the new terminal project. The 2021 comprehensive report does not show how much of the revenues were dedicated to airline rate reduction.   

Conclusion

Natural gas drilling at Pittsburgh International Airport provided the ACAA with a substantial upfront payment but has not provided much in terms of royalties as production has trailed off dramatically since the peak in 2018.  While CNX still has the right to drill more under the terms of its contract, it is uncertain how much more gas reserves are beneath the property in light of the slowing production and deactivation of wells.  In that regard however, the ACAA and CNX came to a new agreement earlier in the year that will permit CNX to drill more wells in the deeper Utica Shale formation over the next five years. The ACAA has agreed to have post-production costs taken from their royalties in return to have more wells drilled with the potential to continue the royalty revenue stream.   

This will become more problematic as the ACAA needs cash to pay for the ambitious and questionable terminal project. With passenger counts not recovering to pre-pandemic levels, operating revenues are not going to cut it alone. Raising airline charges would be self-defeating and it’s also likely another infusion of federal money from pandemic relief will not happen. Money from the Build Back Better legislation is more likely. 

In sum, it looks increasingly likely that PIT’s natural gas revenues will not be a major source of revenue over the next 20 to 30 years to service the enormous debt issued to build the new terminal.

Pittsburgh’s airport woes continue as junket visits England

Introduction and background: A contingent of Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) officials, local business and community leaders are in London this week visiting British Airways (BA) to discuss the airline’s activity at PIT.  As per the Sept. 23 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“The Allegheny County Airport Authority and tourism group VisitPittsburgh organized the jaunt to Great Britain to showcase the value of [BA’s four-times-weekly] flight and make the case for its expansion.”

Further quoting the P-G story: “[Authority CEO Christina] Cassotis is hoping the local delegates can convince their overseas audience that the region can support additional international service and destinations beyond London. The purpose is to demonstrate that we have a great business and leisure market, she said.”

To put it as kindly as possible, making a convincing case for expansion and to demonstrate credibly the vitality of the business climate will be very difficult.  British Airways has plenty of its own experts to investigate the viability of markets where it operates and potential markets to enter or where to expand service. 

The Pittsburgh region’s economy and population fall far short of being dynamic or exhibiting strong economic gains. Moreover, passenger counts—both domestic and international—at PIT lag well behind pre-pandemic levels.

Population and employment

As reported in Allegheny Institute Policy Brief (Vol. 22, No.18) the population of the

seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) in 2020 was 2.6 percent below the U.S. Census count of 2000—two decades earlier. Allegheny County, by far the largest in terms of the metro’s population and home of PIT, lost roughly 42,000 residents from 2000 to 2021, according to the latest Census annual estimate.  Gains in Butler and Washington counties were not large enough to offset losses in the other counties.

Numbers for private-sector employment (a key measure of economic vitality) in the Pittsburgh MSA do not paint a picture of strong positive momentum in the economy.  Indeed, unfortunately, the picture since 2000 is one of long-term weakness with a couple of periods of respectable gains, notably in 2017, 2018 and 2019 with a combined increase of 32,000 jobs. This was the best sustained three-year gain except for the recovery from the deep recession of 2009-2010.  Unfortunately, the MSA’s 3 percent increase from 2016 through 2019 was slower than the national gain of 5 percent.

Even more disturbing, the Pittsburgh MSA private jobs count through August (latest available data) was 37,700 or 3.5 percent below the August 2019 reading. Indeed, the latest count of 1.046 million was the lowest posting since 2013 and stood an incredibly paltry 1.9 percent above the August 2000, 22 year-earlier figure. 

Nationally, jobs had fully recovered from the pandemic in August, standing 1.4 percent above the August 2019 level and over the period since 2000 rose 16.7 percent. It is important to note that even if the 2019 levels were reached, that is not a sufficient interpretation of job strength. Given that national employment had posted a 5 percent gain from 2016 through 2019, if growth had been just 4 percent from August 2019 through 2022, private employment would have been 2.25 million greater than the actual reading.

But to get a more instructive picture of the weakness of the Pittsburgh MSA employment situation, it is useful to look at an MSA that reflects what a region can do with good economic policies in place. That is to say, a region that does not impose a regulatory environment inimical to economic expansion. Those inimical policies were discussed in several earlier Policy Briefs (Vol. 22, Nos. 8, 17 and 32).

For a stark comparison, the Nashville MSA will be used. By July 2021, Nashville had fully recovered all the jobs lost in the pandemic and began adding net gains above the 2019 monthly readings.  In August 2022, private employment was 66,800 (7.2 percent) above August 2019 to stand in sharp contrast to the 3.5 percent shortfall in Pittsburgh. Moreover, employment in Nashville climbed 55 percent from 2000 to 2022, enormously outpacing the barely positive 1.9 percent gain posted over the 22-year period in the Pittsburgh MSA.

PIT passenger counts

Presumably, any carrier, with or without international destinations, that is looking to possibly start or increase service from an airport will want to see data not only related to the economic conditions and population trends in the airport “catchment area” but passenger count statistics as well. Thus, it is almost a certainty that British Airways is already well aware of the lagging performance at PIT.

Total passengers

Just-released passenger counts at PIT continue to show a very weak picture. Total passengers in August remained 16.3 percent below the August 2019 figure. (Note that month to same month comparisons are used because of large seasonal variations in travel).  This followed shortfalls of 18.5 percent in June and 17.3 percent in July, with a three-month (June, July, and August) average deficit of 17.4 percent. 

By way of comparison, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint data showed national passenger count to be down an average of 10.5 percent for the three months—an average of 6.9 percentage points lower than PIT’s shortfall. TSA checkpoint statistics are valid comparison for airports that have little or no hubbing activity but would not be for a major hub. Since PIT is no longer a hub, the TSA numbers are useful in contrasting the degree of recovery.  Importantly, the September TSA count was only 5.9 percent below the 2019 number following the 8.6 percent shortfall in August.

International passengers

International passenger counts at PIT remain woefully behind the levels reached in 2018 and 2019. After trailing 2019 levels by an average 61.8 percent in the five months January through May, the June-through-August period saw the shortfall decline to 44.3 percent.

No doubt the resumption of the British Airways flights boosted the June-through-August monthly international passenger average to 16,900, nearly double the April-May average of 8,800. The same pattern existed in 2017 and 2018 when the June-to-August count more than doubled the March-to-May count.  However, in 2019 the rise between the two periods was only 50 percent. It is likely the loss of the Delta Air Lines flight to Paris was a major factor in that decline.

Delta announced they would suspend the flight shortly after the Airport Authority granted British Airways a $3 million subsidy to be paid in two installments, the second of which to be paid this year.  It had been delayed because BA pulled its flights during the pandemic.

It appears likely the renewal of British Airways flights in June 2022 has had a positive effect on international travel numbers. But in the absence of publicly available information on carrier-specific data the exact amount of the boost is unavailable to the public.

Note, too, that there was an unusual occurrence in the May to June domestic passenger totals this year.  For the preceding several years, domestic passenger counts have increased, and fairly substantially from May to June.  It is surprising that in 2022, the PIT domestic passenger count in June fell by more than 20,000 from the May posting. This happened as the international count rose significantly.  A possible explanation is that passengers who were, prior to June, taking a domestic flight from PIT to JFK, Charlotte or another airport and then boarded an international flight to Europe are now choosing the nonstop British Airways flight.

It is important to note that 2019 months are not the best comparison to see just how really weak the August 2022 international passenger count was.  In August 2019, international passengers totaled 25,951. In August 2022, the count was 14,415—a drop of 44.5 percent. However, in August 2018, the international count was 41,384, making the August 2022 count a drop of 65.2 percent. And almost as bad, the decline from the August 2017 reading—five years ago—was 59.5 percent. The 2016 statistics are not available.

In short, the international passenger count at PIT is far short of recovery to the 2019 level and much further still from 2017 and 2018 counts.  Bear in mind, too, that the British Airways flights are publicly subsidized.  Indeed, many international carriers have been subsidized in one form or another in the past. Delta, WOW and Condor were all receiving some assistance to get them to fly out of PIT to international destinations.

British Airways

British Airways has returned to Pittsburgh International after a 27-month hiatus. The carrier had received a $3 million subsidy from the airport for two years of operating a four-flight per week schedule. After almost 12 months of service, from April 2019 to March 2020, only one half of the agreement had been completed. To date, there has been no announcement as to whether the subsidy will be renewed after next June.

Thus, it is not clear whether BA is setting fares lower than they would be without the subsidy or whether the $3 million is basically a bonus payment for operating the flight. Does it prevent losses on the route or increase profitability?  Based on a thorough web search, it appears the only other U.S. airport that has subsidized BA is BWI in Baltimore.  That appears to be the case in light of the absence of any reporting of a subsidy in the news media or otherwise made public.

BA currently serves 27 U.S. markets and appears to be looking at several other, mostly second-tier markets. They might be negotiating subsidies as well.  All the major markets—several are large hubs—have BA service already and there is no reporting of any subsidy. Presumably those markets are profitable enough to keep BA service.

The original announcement of the subsidy was accompanied by an economic impact study that contained logical flaws and was seriously over optimistic.  

Which begs several questions:  What is the junket to London about? The putative reason is to convince BA to start a daily service.  But what will be the offer? More subsidies? BA has publicly stated that it is having trouble finding adequate personnel.  Committing to more Pittsburgh flights would likely necessitate shifting personnel from other flights. There might be weakly performing markets where flights could be cutback and personnel moved but that is problematic because if they’re unprofitable markets they would already be seeing cuts in flights.

In that environment, a large enough subsidy might obtain the desired result. But as we have written many times, subsidizing area residents to fly to London is a huge mistake.  The fares paid go immediately to BA coffers.  Moreover, traveling in England or other points in Europe and spending tourist money is of no benefit to the Pittsburgh region. If there is no subsidy, the free market will determine if this route will be undertaken. 

Conclusion

It is likely the effort to maintain the direct flight to England is more about image and bragging rights.  The hard reality is that Pittsburgh International is currently struggling with seriously reduced passenger counts (domestic and international) compared to the pre-pandemic levels while it builds an expensive new terminal. But as was noted above, the Pittsburgh area is not demonstrating economic vitality in terms of job gains and is experiencing population stagnation.

More subsidized international flights are not the answer to the Pittsburgh region’s economic woes.  Strong growth in the economy in terms of jobs, income and population would create market-driven demand for international flights. The focus of political leaders needs to be on policies that are inhibiting growth.

Non-hub airports such as PIT are not principal economic drivers. They are part of the infrastructure that facilitates the service area’s travel and cargo needs and, in doing so, helps the economy. These airports need to operate efficiently and at the lowest cost possible while ensuring adequate capacity. By being cost-efficient, existing carriers can be induced to offer more flights and new carriers attracted to add service.  Offering subsidies to some carriers is market-distorting and creates unfairness for the unsubsidized.

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.