Allegheny County wooing Emirates airline


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Rich Fitzgerald is planning a trip to Dubai.

The Allegheny County executive announced Thursday that in late February or early March he will lead a delegation to the United Arab Emirates to speak with an airline known as Emirates about the possibility of opening a hub of operations at the Pittsburgh International Airport, an outcome that aviation analysts deemed unlikely but that Mr. Fitzgerald said he would still like to explore.

"We want to talk to them about how this market is perfect for a hub," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

His announcement comes less than one week after American Airlines said it was closing the US Airways operations control center in Moon. The move, which will consolidate operations in Dallas-Fort Worth for the American Airlines and US Airways merger, will affect 600 jobs here and was greeted as bad news for the Pittsburgh region.

In Dubai, Mr. Fitzgerald hopes, there will be a good prospect for better news in the future for the Pittsburgh region and its airport. The Allegheny County delegation will be discussing Emirates, an airline created in 1985 and owned by the government of Dubai.

Mr. Fitzgerald said his "antenna immediately went up" after reading news accounts of Emirates' recent and rapid growth, including the airline's purchase in November of 150 Boeing 777X aircraft and 50 Airbus A380s, what the company described as the "largest ever aircraft order in civil aviation."

Discussions between Allegheny County officials and United Arab Emirates representatives will include talk of setting up international flights, but Mr. Fitzgerald said his high hope is that Pittsburgh can serve as a hub for Emirates airline, increasing the number of domestic flights leaving Pittsburgh and flying to places such as Nashville and Los Angeles.

But, to hear aviation analysts describe it, Pittsburgh as a hub for Emirates airline may be no more than a desert mirage.

"That is not going to happen," said Bill Swelbar, executive vice president for Inter-VISTAS in Washington, D.C., when asked his thoughts about Pittsburgh as a hub. "That is called cabotage. That is against the law."

Cabotage is when a foreign air carrier operates between two U.S. points, other than as part of a through trip that involves travel to or from a foreign point. It is banned by U.S. law.

Another analyst, Richard Aboulafia at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., called Mr. Fitzgerald's vision "completely impossible." "It's a political nonstarter," he said.

The analysts agreed that even the idea of Pittsburgh becoming a destination for international Emirates flights from Dubai is a stretch. The cities that Emirates flies to currently are large ones, such as Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles, to name a few.

"If one of the Middle East carriers were interested in Pittsburgh, it would be the smallest U.S. market to date that they have decided to enter," Mr. Swelbar said.

He said Middle Eastern airlines such as Emirates are "hungry" to find new U.S. opportunities, but they tend to target larger metropolitan areas, because to be successful they need large traffic flows.

Pittsburgh, with its current air travel profile, does not fit the bill, he said.

"We know that Pittsburgh struggled even with some transatlantic service," he said.

More within the realm of possibility, though still unlikely, both analysts agreed, is the idea of a codeshare, meaning a person could book an Emirates flight that goes from Pittsburgh to Atlanta to Dubai, with the Pittsburgh to Atlanta portion being aboard a U.S. carrier.

But, Mr. Aboulafia said, Emirates does not currently have codeshares with any U.S. carriers, and Mr. Swelbar said it doesn't seem as though they have "the appetite for it."

A spokesman for the Allegheny County Airport Authority declined to comment.

Describing the discussions as "preliminary," Mr. Fitzgerald admitted that the plan does contain hurdles. But it's an idea that he believes is worth pursuing.

"There are certainly regulations and restrictions," he said. "We still think there's an opportunity here for Pittsburgh."

Simin Curtis, president, CEO and founder of the American Middle East Institute in Pittsburgh, was not aware of the planned UAE trip until a reporter called her, but she said she supported it. It's an idea, she said, that possibly "creates jobs, creates goodwill, builds stability."

"It's win-win, all around," she said.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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