Airlines, Allegheny County discuss adding international service

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Allegheny County officials are talking to at least four airlines about expanding international service from Pittsburgh International Airport to cities such as Rome, Amsterdam and perhaps even London.

At the same time, the county's airport authority is preparing to cut fees paid by carriers to operate from Pittsburgh International, a move they hope will help to bolster the bid for more flights.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said Wednesday that he and airport officials have been in discussions with Air France-KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Italian carrier Alitalia, Delta Air Lines and others about adding trans-Atlantic flights to supplement Delta's Pittsburgh to Paris nonstop.

Mr. Fitzgerald said officials have talked to KLM about flying into Amsterdam and to Alitalia about possible nonstop service to Rome. They also have talked to American Airlines about potentially introducing service to London from Pittsburgh.

While none of the airlines has committed to adding any international service, Mr. Fitzgerald said the carriers have not dismissed the idea out of hand.

"I think there's genuine interest," he said.

Mr. Fitzgerald said some of that interest is a result of Delta's nonstop service to Paris, which he described as "very successful." Delta launched the flight from Pittsburgh to Charles de Gaulle International Airport in June 2009, backed by $9 million in subsidies from the state and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

The airline had the right to drop the route after the subsidies ended in June 201l, but has chosen to retain it on a seasonal basis, with service suspended during the winter months.

Mr. Fitzgerald said the success of the flight serves as a "great testimony" to airlines like KLM and Alitalia.

Pittsburgh hasn't had nonstop service to London since November 2004, when US Airways dropped the route. It also eliminated a flight to Frankfurt at the same time.

Mr. Fitzgerald said local officials have talked to American and other airlines about the potential for adding service to London, Frankfurt (a favorite for many of Pittsburgh's German-based companies such as Bayer), and perhaps even Dublin.

He doesn't view the efforts as a mere chasing after the wind. He said the region's economic growth and vibrancy have gotten the attention of the airlines.

"There's a lot of interest in Pittsburgh and what's happening in this economy," he said.

Representatives for KLM; Alitalia, which has been struggling with financial problems; and Delta could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Matt Miller, an American Airlines spokesman, had no comment beyond saying that the carrier is always evaluating its network.

However, American typically offers international service from its hubs and currently offers nonstop service to London and Dublin from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The airport authority board will try to make it easier for airlines to consider Pittsburgh at its meeting today, when it is expected to vote to reduce the fees they pay to operate at the airport.

It would mark the second time since July that the authority has cut the fees in an effort to attract more flights.

The board is expected to cut the airport's average cost per passenger from $14.11 to $13.92 as part of the authority's 2014 budget, which takes effect in January. That would be on top of a 50-cent reduction in the per-passenger cost made in July.

Mr. Fitzgerald said the $13.92 rate will be the lowest for the airlines since 2007, when 9.8 million travelers used the airport. Last year, 8 million travelers got on or off planes in Pittsburgh.

The reductions were made possible by the $46.3 million lease bonus payment the authority received from Consol Energy in exchange for the rights to drill for natural gas on airport land.

That payment is being spread over five years. This year, for instance, $7.1 million went to the authority, with $2.5 million used to cut fees. The rest went for capital improvements and economic development.

While Mr. Fitzgerald said the reductions should help the airport attract more flights and carriers, he added there are other important factors in that effort, such as economic growth.

"As we always said, [the fees] are a piece of the puzzle. The economic activity is probably more important. They're both good factors in our favor," he said.

Even with the cuts, the airport's cost per passenger is still considered among the higher ones in the country. It is nearly double the median of $7.22 for origination and destination airports nationwide.

breaking - region - Transportation - businessnews

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262. First Published October 9, 2013 11:11 AM


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