Via pullout begs old question

Via pullout begs old question

The Allegheny County Airport Authority was lucky this time. Of course, “lucky” is a relative term.

Thursday last, word came that Via Airlines — another in a long line of much-ballyhooed airlines either publicly subsidized or in line for the public dole – was suspending service at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT).

Via’s collapse was exceptionally swift. Less than two months after starting service, it was kaput at PIT. As it did when it halved its original, initial flight schedule – four weekly flights to Birmingham, Ala., became two – Via blamed a lack of “suitable … quality crews.”

But some observers have questioned that claim. Whether Via was even meeting its payroll has been questioned as well. And Via’s customer reviews – overall, from other cities – were anything but flattering.

Via’s PIT stay was so brief, additional planned flights to Memphis, Austin and Hartford turned out to be pipe dreams. Reports out of Birmingham have it that Via will return to its roots as a charter-only carrier.

In addition to what the Airport Authority calls its “standard incentive” to carriers starting up at PIT – a one-year waiver of landing fees – there were to be “modest” marketing incentives for Via. The amount never was disclosed.

But the authority lucked out this time, saying it paid no incentives to Via prior to the airline suspending local service. That would be unlike some other airlines that left the authority holding the bag for a cumulative hundreds of thousands of dollars in public incentives.

All that said, an important question never has been answered:

How are these airlines’ financial and service wherewithal vetted? Does a debatable rationale for spotty service carry no weight? Are widespread customer complaints discounted? Debacle after debacle at PIT suggests these airlines are not vetted very well.

Heck, given the experiences with OneJet, WOW Air and even cargo-carrying Qatar, it might not even be hyperbole to wonder if there’s any vetting.

Yet, with the announcement of each new subsidized airline, the platitudes are writ so large that they almost presage failure.

Remember the words of Airport Authority CEO Christian Cassotis from January?

“We’re happy. We’re thrilled. .. (Via has) the right-sized aircrafts. These are the kinds of markets they serve and we know these markets will perform when they get service. So I think it’s a good thing.”

Further offered Cassotis: “We have a lot of confidence in the fact that (Via is) an established airline. They have a track record of serving communities like ours.”

But, again, an abundance of customer reviews suggested a poor track record.

Whether the Pittsburgh market ever would have performed for Via remains unanswered. But the more critical question should have been if Via could perform for the flying public.

In very short order, that answer was apparent.

More due diligence and less rah-rah-sis-boom-bah-ing would have gone a long way in precluding this latest failure.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).