Watch for new airline subsidies at PIT

Watch for new airline subsidies at PIT

As Jake Haulk, president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute, has divined from perusing Allegheny County Airport Authority budget data, aircraft operations at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) are down 37.5 percent for the year ended Nov. 30 and 41 percent in November 2020 over November 2019.

The domestic passenger count remains 65 percent below year-ago levels. And there have been no international passengers since March.

The operative phrase in all this, of course, is “coronavirus pandemic.”

And though there has been plenty of rosy talk about Covid-19 vaccines soon putting the pandemic behind us and travel life returning to normal, some analysts say it could be sometime in 2023 before any sense of normalcy begins to return.

If then, that is. As vaccine administration has lagged, Covid has surged anew worldwide. Strict travel restrictions have not abated in many countries.

The latest bad news for PIT came last week as Condor Airlines erased Pittsburgh from its seasonal flights (late May to late September) to Germany.

But Condor will fly to six other U.S. mainline cities and two in Alaska, the Post-Gazette reports. Which is an odd development considering how “successful” the local Condor flights had been touted as being (85 percent to 95 percent full, on average).

The airport authority initially subsidized the PIT flights in 2017 and 2018 with half-a-million dollars in public money. Condor continued the twice-weekly flights in 2019 without subsidies and planned to do the same in 2020 before the pandemic hit, officials say.

But will the Airport Authority dangle new subsidies before Condor in an attempt to have the Germany flights renewed in 2022?

The same question applies to the now-suspended British Airways (BA) service between PIT and London. Those flights had been heavily subsidized –$3 million over two years.

A British trade journal flat out says the flights are done, permanently. Airport officials are holding out hope that they’ll return. And BA, among other airlines, has ponied up significant money to keep the design work moving on the PIT modernization project.

But at what future taxpayer premium?

One industry consultant tells the P-G that he believes airlines like British Airways and Condor eventually will return to markets where they have been successful before the pandemic, which could provide hope for cities like Pittsburgh.

“It’s not a question of gone for good,” he told the newspaper. “They’ll come back when the market looks like it will perform as it did in the past.”

Pardon the cynic in us but does that mean the unsubsidized market based on real demand or one that pols and their acolytes believe they can command by once again raiding the taxpayer kitty?

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