Frontier Airlines adds to momentum at Pittsburgh airport
January 12, 2016 11:23 PM
Matthew Staver/Bloomberg News
Frontier Airlines planes stand at their gates at Denver International Airport.
By Mark Belko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh International Airport is on a roll. In the span of 48 hours this week, the region learned that one airline is returning in a big way and two others are expanding.
Could it be that the Findlay airport is finally shaking off more than a decade in the doldrums after the loss of the former US Airways hub?
“Airlines are figuring out that there’s more to do in Pittsburgh,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority.
In all, five new airlines — Frontier, OneJet, Allegiant, Sun Air Express and Porter — have begun operations in Pittsburgh in the past year. In that time, the number of nonstop destinations has grown from 37 to 53.
The latest to turn its attention to the Steel City is Frontier, which announced Tuesday that it will start nonstop service to five cities — Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas and Orlando — in mid-June.
Frontier hasn’t flown from Pittsburgh since 2012, when its nonstop service to Milwaukee lasted all of two weeks before it was ended because of cutbacks at that city’s General Mitchell International Airport.
But the Denver-based airline, which is re-engineering itself as an ultra low-fare carrier, currently is in an expansion mode. It plans to add 56 new markets this spring and summer.
Pittsburgh was one of those to make the cut.
The region did so in part because the airline found that the airport’s costs — at one time considered among the highest in the country — have become more reasonable, said Rick Zeni, Frontier’s chief information officer.
“We look for airport costs where, combined with our own costs, we can set a fare that makes financial sense. And we believe we’re there,” he said. “We choose places to fly where we can offer service that people want and where we can run a profitable operation.”
Mr. Zeni said it was that combination of factors — more reasonable airport costs, lower airline costs, and market opportunities — that prompted Frontier to jump back into the region in such a big way.
“The time is right for Pittsburgh,” he said.
Frontier is planning daily flights to Las Vegas and Denver, its hub; four days a week to Atlanta and Orlando, a popular vacation destination; and three days a week to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
The Orlando flight will start June 15; Chicago and Denver June 16; and Atlanta and Las Vegas June 17. One-way introductory fares range from $19 to Chicago to $79 to Las Vegas.
All of the cities are served by other carriers, with the new Frontier flights adding an element of competition.
Ms. Cassotis argued Frontier’s dramatic return to the market exposes the “myth” that the airport’s high costs were keeping carriers away. While that may have been the local perception, it is not true, she said.
“The costs aren’t an issue if the airline wants to serve the market. We’ve been working hard keeping our costs steady and declining, and what the airlines appreciate is that kind of predictability,” she said.
Nonetheless, Ms. Cassotis admitted she was “surprised, thrilled” that Frontier moved into the market in such a substantial way.
While the airline also announced Tuesday it would begin offering service from Columbus, San Antonio and Colorado Springs, Pittsburghers will be able to go to more places on Frontier planes than fliers in the other cities.
“They’re all in,” Ms. Cassotis said.
The Frontier announcement followed the news that Allegiant Airlines will start service April 8 to Savannah, Georgia/Hilton Head, S.C., its eighth destination from Pittsburgh in the last year.
Delta Air Lines stated Monday that it is expanding seasonable nonstop Paris service by starting nine days earlier in May than last year and offering the flight seven days a week for the full six months. Last year the seven-day option was only available from June to September.
Ms. Cassotis has long maintained the region is underserved. As airlines have added flights, the market has responded, as evidenced by the 7 percent increase in passenger traffic in November, she said.
Airport officials also have been very aggressive in trying to woo airlines, traveling as far as South Africa to pitch “opportunities that make sense for them.”
That’s not to say there still aren’t challenges. Pittsburgh has nowhere near the number of flights it did when it was a US Airways hub. It still lacks nonstop flights to cities like Seattle and San Diego, as well as more robust service to other West Coast cities.
But for the first time in a long while, the airport appears to be on an ascending flight path.
“The approach has changed. It’s working, and we are making sure that we’re highlighting Pittsburgh as an opportunity. And we’re getting attention. We’re getting recognized,” Ms. Cassotis said.
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262.
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