Pittsburgh International Airport offers incentives for nonstop destinations

Airport puts 12 places on its nonstop wish list

San Diego, Seattle, New Orleans and Jacksonville, Fla., top the list of destinations being targeted for nonstop service by officials at Pittsburgh International Airport.

The Allegheny County Airport Authority is offering incentives, ranging from a waiver of landing fees to marketing support, for any airline willing to take a gamble on those routes or eight other coveted destinations.

But one big international stop not on the latest list is London, even though it was the top write-in vote getter in an online poll done by the airport authority last year. It also was the top destination singled out by voters in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette online poll this week.

Bradley D. Penrod, airport authority executive director, said the targeted cities were chosen based on the authority's poll, a survey of businesses done by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, and on U.S. Department of Transportation statistics that calculate how many travelers a day fly between Pittsburgh and other cities.

As a result of the feedback, San Diego emerged as the top destination, with Seattle second, New Orleans third and Jacksonville fourth. Other cities in the top 12 are Milwaukee; San Antonio/Austin, Texas; Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Kansas City, Mo.; Nashville, Tenn.; Salt Lake City; Oklahoma City; and Love Field in Dallas.

PG graphic: Proposed nonstop destinations
(Click image for larger version)

Pittsburgh hasn't had nonstop service to either San Diego or Seattle since the summer of 2007, when US Airways dropped the flights after shutting down its hub at the airport. There's no nonstop service to any of the other cities, except to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

San Diego and Seattle were the top vote getters in the authority's online survey. They also generated more passengers a day each way (San Diego, 117, and Seattle, 108) than any of the other cities targeted by the airport, according to Department of Transportation data.

While some of the cities have been on the airport's radar for some time, San Antonio and Austin are new to the latest list, Mr. Penrod said. Austin is a growing destination for Pittsburgh's high-tech companies, while San Antonio is home to a number of military bases, he said.

Airport officials also have seen an uptick in travel to New Orleans. The Big Easy is drawing more traffic because of the region's Marcellus Shale drilling boom, Mr. Penrod said. Louisiana is a hub for many energy companies. The airport also is seeing a lot of energy-related travel to Calgary.

Jacksonville draws a mix of business and leisure travel, while Milwaukee is one of the 30 top business destinations from Pittsburgh. Frontier Airlines started service to Milwaukee in the spring only to discontinue it two weeks later.

Mr. Penrod said London, despite its popularity with online voters, did not make the cut because only 54 people a day fly to that destination from Pittsburgh. That's not nearly enough to fill up a 250-seat jet needed to make the trip, he said.

The airport authority and the county are continually pitching the target destinations to airlines, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

Carriers that bite on a route can take advantage of several incentives offered annually by the authority, including a waiver of landing and overnight parking fees for jets and various levels of marketing support.

For example, an airline that starts service to a target destination with at least five flights a week qualifies for a waiver of all landing and overnight parking fees for jets in the first year and $140,000 in marketing support over two years. There's also a 50 percent reduction in landing fees in the second year.

While the incentives could help airlines to save money, Mr. Penrod said some carriers decline the help because they want to see if a flight can make it on its own.

"What we have heard is that they all appreciate the opportunity, but at the same time, their long-term goal is to operate the flight without incentives. They prefer flights to be sustainable from day one," he said.

Nonetheless, even with incentives, getting an airline to take a chance on one of the targeted destinations could be a hard sell, said Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant.

He questioned whether the 117 and 108 travelers flying each way to San Diego and Seattle, respectively, would justify the expense to an airline. He said the numbers would "have to be four times that size before any airline would take a look at it."

Mr. Boyd said the only airline that might be interested in flights to San Diego, New Orleans, Nashville and the Texas cities would be Southwest. The only carrier he saw as a possibility for Seattle is Alaska Airlines.

William R. Lauer, an Allegheny Capital Inc. principal who has followed the industry for years, said the airport's high cost per passenger, at $14.66, may discourage airlines from taking a chance on a new route.

"When you have landing and take-off fees that in many cases are twice what they are at other locations, an airline has to think about it a bit differently," he said. "The economics might require more [local] demand than otherwise might be the case."

But Mr. Fitzgerald said the region's economy, including business near the airport, is growing. And if the authority awards a contract for Marcellus Shale drilling on airport land, it could generate revenue to provide more incentives to airlines and make it cheaper to operate from Pittsburgh International, he said. He added that local officials also are working to increase flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco, each of which has limited nonstop service, and Philadelphia, where US Airways has a monopoly.

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. First Published January 18, 2013 5:00 AM


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