Sunday Forum: Air service in Pittsburgh is up to us

Airlines are adding flights here despite hard times, but those flights will go away if we don't take advantage of them, warns PETER KALIS of the Allegheny Conference

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Every airline passenger has lived through this.

Your plane taxis onto the field, then pauses before it hits the runway as the pilot comes on the intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like ..."

You wait anxiously for what comes next. Will it be word that the plane is next in line for takeoff, or an announcement that the aircraft is returning to the terminal?

Now imagine that you and your fellow passengers had the power to determine at that moment whether the plane takes off as scheduled or if your trip will be cut disappointingly short.

That is the situation in which the region finds itself with regards to the quality of air service at Pittsburgh International Airport. Even in a time of global recession, as the aviation industry is suffering historic financial losses, major airlines are making multi-million dollar investments in Pittsburgh based on their faith in the strength of the market.

The question is how the community will respond. There are two bellwethers whose fate will help determine the future of air service in Pittsburgh for years to come -- Delta Air Lines' nonstop service to Europe and United Airlines' nonstop service to the West Coast, which began in August.

The industry is closely monitoring the performance of those flights, and there is nothing more important that the people of the Pittsburgh region can do to improve air service than to support those ventures.

If those flights are successful, then Pittsburgh International Airport will keep those flights and we can expect additional service from those airlines and others.

If they are not successful, no matter the reason, we will lose those flights -- and perhaps others -- and Pittsburgh will drop off all airline short lists of potential expansion locations.

As airlines trim their schedules and cut their fleets, what Pittsburgh has been able to accomplish is unparalleled.

Consider the Delta flight. On the same day Delta announced the new Pittsburgh-Paris flight, it announced plans to fly from Raleigh to Paris. Because of the economic downturn, that flight was eliminated before the first plane took off. The same thing happened with proposed Hartford-to-Amsterdam service.

Or consider United. Over the past year, the airline has taken 100 jets out of its fleet and has cut its overall network by nearly 10 percent. But even as it shrunk, United was persuaded by the potential of the Pittsburgh market to find extra planes and crews to begin new daily nonstop flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

One major reason for those wins has been the work of the Regional Air Service Partnership, a joint venture of Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, the Allegheny County Airport and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development that has become a national model for how a community's elected officials, airport and business sector must work together to attract air service.

Airport and conference officials routinely field questions from around the country about how Pittsburgh has done it. And Delta officials have said repeatedly that Pittsburgh would not have a flight to Paris without the unique risk-sharing arrangement put in place between the Allegheny Conference and Delta, with the active support of the Regional Air Service Partnership and the state.

Now it's up to the market -- the ticket-buying public -- to determine what comes next. Historically bad economic conditions for the airline industry will not help. U.S. airlines are cutting back more in 2009 than they did after 9/11 or during the oil shock of the 1970s, according to the Air Transport Association. Globally, the industry is on pace to lose a combined $28 billion in 2008-2009, worse than after 9/11.

These poor results are the consequence of fewer people flying and lower ticket prices. For instance, the sale of first- and business-class tickets to fly across the Atlantic is down 15 percent this year compared to last, according to the International Air Transport Association, a circumstance that affects the profitability of the Delta service in Pittsburgh.

But global economic conditions don't let us off the hook. If planes to and from Pittsburgh are flying empty, we can't say to the airlines, "Hey, it's not our fault." The airline executives will be sympathetic -- then they will pull the planes and put them where they will make money, or they'll ground them.

Even with the gloomy financial picture, however, airlines continue to expand at Pittsburgh International Airport. Carriers such as American and AirTran, for example, have added new flights and new jets to the network. And a Florida company, Gulfstream International Airlines, told the Post-Gazette that it is considering starting service to Harrisburg and perhaps other cities, such as Columbus and Indianapolis.

The pieces are in place. Air service at Pittsburgh International Airport is going to change. The only question is in which direction it will go.

The challenge facing our community is simple and unavoidable: Use it. Or lose it.

Peter J. Kalis is global Managing Partner of K&L Gates LLP and and chairman of the Allegheny Conference Transportation & Infrastructure Committee ( ).


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