Pittsburgh is PeoplExpress Airlines' 'major focus'

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PeoplExpress, the no-frills carrier that failed in the 1980s, is preparing a comeback and is counting on Pittsburgh International Airport to help in the revival.

The start-up airline, which hopes to start flying in July, sees Pittsburgh as a "major focus city" in its network, with the goal of serving markets lost to travelers because of cutbacks by US Airways and other carriers.

"We're working very carefully with the Pittsburgh airport authority to identify cities that make sense," said Mike Morisi, president of PeoplExpress, in an interview Tuesday.

Pending government approval, Pittsburgh will be among the first cities served by the start-up carrier. Others include Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, the airline's headquarters in Virginia; Providence, R.I.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and Newark, N.J. Of those, only Newark now is served nonstop from Pittsburgh.

Other markets under consideration include Orlando, Fla.; Fort Myers, Fla.; Kansas City, Mo.; and St. Louis.

"I think that what we will do is pick up markets [other airlines have] abandoned and build a very successful operation in those markets," Mr. Morisi said.

He added that he envisions PeoplExpress starting in Pittsburgh with four to five nonstop flights a day and building from that. "I think you will see that grow pretty significantly in the first year," he said.

The airline plans to have about 30 employees in Pittsburgh at its inception but could end up with as many as 100 after its first year to 18 months in operation, Mr. Morisi said. The carrier also may do maintenance work at the airport.

Pittsburgh International, whose cost per boarding is among the higher in the country, is more expensive than some of the other airports PeoplExpress is considering, Mr. Morisi said. But the Allegheny County Airport Authority extended a "very fair" deal that enabled the carrier to move forward with its plans, he added.

The authority offered the standard incentives available to any carrier that takes a chance on new routes, its executive director, Bradley D. Penrod, said. They include the option of free landing fees and marketing help.

"The fact that a new entrant carrier wants us to be part of their start, I think it's a good sign that they see Pittsburgh as a very viable market," he said.

Mr. Penrod said the authority has discussed potential markets with PeoplExpress. The carrier has not given firm numbers on potential service levels but has said it intends to "include us in a significant way" in its plans, Mr. Penrod said.

PeoplExpress will offer fares ranging from $69 to $149 one way, with no fees for checked baggage or reserving a seat. Customers also will have the option for upgrades to the service.

In its heyday, PeoplExpress, which existed from 1981 to 1987, ranked as the country's fifth-largest airline, offering fares as low as $19. It was the third-largest carrier in Pittsburgh, with nine flights a day to Newark.

But rapid expansion ultimately doomed the low-cost carrier, and in 1987 it became part of Continental Airlines.

Mr. Morisi said the new PeoplExpress hopes to prevent a repeat of history by focusing on niche markets and avoiding big-city hubs.

"There's a lot of excitement about the return of an iconic brand like this and to do it over and to do it right," he said. "We're very confident."

Nonetheless, the airline still has plenty of work to do on the ground before it can take flight, including the need for approval from the federal government.

Toward that end, PeoplExpress is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to get its certification and plans to file an application soon with the U.S. Department of Transportation to become a regularly scheduled airline.

It also must raise 25 percent of its first-year expenses to meet DOT financial fitness requirements and has hired an investment banking firm to help with that. It also is negotiating with Qantas Airways to buy 14 Boeing 737-400 jets, the only plane it will fly.

Still, Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant, is skeptical of the plans. He said there is no need for a start-up carrier in a time of airline consolidation. With fuel prices high and fares increasing, many people just aren't flying, he said.

"It's trying to resuscitate a name, it's trying to resuscitate an image that never existed. It's trying to be a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," he said.

Mr. Boyd also had a piece of advice.

"I think they need to rethink the name of the thing, PeoplExpress. It was kind of a neat concept, but it failed," he said. "It was a sloppy failure."

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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