US Airways ends flights from Pittsburgh to 5 cities

July cuts spell 76% drop-off from 2001 for largest carrier at the airport

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US Airways' dramatic retrenchment in Pittsburgh will continue this July as the Tempe, Ariz.-based carrier eliminates service to five cities -- including Baltimore, San Diego and Seattle -- and reduces the frequency of flights to 10 other destinations.

The summer cuts leave only San Francisco and Los Angeles as direct, non-stop West Coast options for Pittsburgh travelers. The decision also brings the total number of flights eliminated by US Airways since late 2001 to 415, a 76 percent drop-off, and leaves Pittsburgh International Airport with only 127 daily flights from its largest carrier.

"We are not happy about it," said Kent George, director of the Allegheny County Airport Authority. "What will their commitment be to us in the future? What will they do?"

Pittsburgh once was the largest hub and employment center in the US Airways system, home to almost 12,000 workers and serving as the connection point to 112 different cities. But a post-9/11 industry bloodletting hit this city harder than any other, paring 10,000 local airline jobs and 64 destinations -- the July cuts will drop the number of cities served to 48.

In 2004, US Airways downgraded Pittsburgh from a "hub" to a "focus city" as it shifted more of its flying to the East Coast and created more connections through Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C. In late 2005, it merged with America West Airlines, and despite pledges that no "major changes" were planned in Pittsburgh, the cuts continued.

With the new reductions, scheduled to start July 7, even Pittsburgh's "focus city" designation is in question. The key US Airways markets in Charlotte, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., New York and Las Vegas will all be larger, with more daily flights.

"We are asking US Airways, 'Are we a focus city or are we not going to be a focus city anymore?' " said Mr. George, the airport authority director. "There are other carriers out there. Every time US Airways pulled back, [rivals] have stepped up and filled in," he said, citing the example of low-cost pioneer Southwest Airlines, which now has 12 percent of the local traffic two years after beginning service here.

Southwest and other carriers "are doing well, so we have to take a look at that."

While he acknowledged that "US Airways has to do what US Airways wants to do," the airport authority director also made it clear that he is concerned and wants more answers.

"Does US Airways want to be part of Pittsburgh's future?" he asked.

In addition to Baltimore (a city also served by Southwest), Seattle and San Diego (both currently offered three times a week on a seasonal basis), US Airways also intends to discontinue service to Buffalo and Altoona.

US Airways spokesman Morgan Durrant said Seattle and San Diego will not return on a seasonal basis, as they have in the past, and called the cuts a "tough business decision. But economics is the driving factor."

The 10 cities seeing a reduction in service are Albany (from three to one), Erie (from three to one), Newark (from four to one), Indianapolis (from four to two), New York's LaGuardia Airport (from six to five on weekends), Chicago's O'Hare Airport (from three to one), Philadelphia (from 10 to eight), Providence, R.I., (from four to two), Syracuse (from two to one) and Toronto (from three to two).

On June 6, the frequency of flights to San Francisco and Los Angeles will increase to two per day, but they both drop back to one per day in September.

Local airline analyst Bill Lauer said the reshuffling by US Airways is an example of its need to use equipment and flight crews more efficiently elsewhere in its system. But it is also another reminder of how the loss of Pittsburgh's hub status reduces the need for US Airways to offer much beyond what the local market demands.

One positive for travelers is a US Airways pullback creates opportunities for carriers such as Southwest, JetBlue and even Delta Air Lines, which recently added a Salt Lake City flight and plans to increase the size of its aircraft flying that route this summer. Due to all that new competition, air fares in Pittsburgh are down double digits in just six years, meaning no more drives to Cleveland for cheap flights, as former Mayor Tom Murphy once bragged of doing.

But there is a trade-off to the loss of that US Airways monopoly, as Mr. Lauer explains.

"If all you wanted were lower prices, you've got them," he said. "That's not a bad thing. On the other hand, if you needed greater variety of choices, destinations and frequency, it is a bad thing."


Dan Fitzpatrick can be reached at dfitzpatrick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1752.


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