Allegheny County Airport doing its best, aviation experts say
February 7, 2013 5:00 AM
Brad Penrod, former CEO of the Allgheny County Airport Authority
By Mark Belko Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Allegheny County Airport Authority was doing everything it could to drum up more flights for Pittsburgh International Airport before a shake-up Tuesday that resulted in the reassignment of its executive director, a top aviation expert said Wednesday.
Michael Boyd, chairman of Boyd Group International, a Colorado-based aviation consultant, said he doubts that a new CEO will do any better than current executive director Bradley D. Penrod at attracting more flights.
"There isn't a huge airport store out there that hasn't been tapped," he said. "There aren't a lot of nonstop flights out there that you haven't tapped."
Mr. Boyd, who has served as a consultant for Pittsburgh International in the past and who continues to follow its progress, said Mr. Penrod is being made a scapegoat for frustrations over airport service levels.
After serving as executive director since October 2007 overseeing all aspects of the airport, Mr. Penrod is being moved into the new position of president and chief strategy officer, where he will concentrate on the operational side.
The authority plans to conduct a national search for a CEO whose focus will be on attracting flights. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said that the changes were made because of frustration on the authority board and in the business community over the level of service, which has dropped dramatically since US Airways eliminated its Pittsburgh hub in 2004.
But Mr. Boyd said the blame is being misplaced.
"Having a human sacrifice will not bring you one more flight and that's exactly what just happened," he said.
For airlines, adding flights is strictly a bottom-line business decision -- either market demand justifies it or it doesn't, he and other experts said.
"You've got a free market that will make its own decisions about flights. That demand will ultimately drive carriers to furnish service," said William R. Lauer, an Allegheny Capital Inc. principal who has followed the airline industry for years.
While route adjustments by airlines can be complicated, they are "often numbers-driven. The numbers are basically cold hard reality. They're demand-driven," he noted.
"I don't know if you have an executive running the airport who's able to reach out and make a telephone call to an airline that that will have much bearing."
Kent George, who served as executive director of the airport authority before Mr. Penrod, said that attracting new service often is a collaborative effort, done in concert with the business community and others. He said that is how the airport was able to attract Southwest Airlines and JetBlue to Pittsburgh.
"I don't believe any one person can miraculously generate new air service unless there are passengers to fill the aircraft," he said, adding that Pittsburgh "has relatively good air service for a community of its size."
Part of the problem has been that some businesses continued to support US Airways, the region's dominant carrier, when new airlines came into the market with lower fares, he said. US Airways would match the new carrier's fare and businesses would continue to use US Airways rather than fly the new airline.
Making it even more difficult is that airlines are not in a growth pattern right now. Mr. Boyd said there will be 200 fewer airplanes and 2 percent fewer seats in the sky this year than in 2012. In Pittsburgh, the number of seats will drop by 1.7 percent compared to last year.
"Pittsburgh has done everything it can to get as much service as it can. To imply that the current management is falling down on the job is entirely inaccurate," Mr. Boyd said. "The fact of the matter is that you have the service you can support there."
In a statement, US Airways praised Mr. Penrod: "We're proud of the work Brad's done in Pittsburgh and consider him one of the nation's premier airport directors."
Mr. Lauer said the airport may be able to pick up some flights "at the margins" if it can reduce its per passenger cost, considered among the higher ones in the country. That should happen in 2018 when the airport retires the midfield terminal debt.
Dennis Davin, an airport authority board member, said that the changes at the top were made to try to "increase the competitive position of the airport," particularly given the economic development that is occurring there along with the anticipated Marcellus Shale drilling and the millions of dollars in revenue it should bring.
He said it makes sense to hire someone to focus on attracting flights while all of that other activity is taking place.