30 Years: Pittsburgh's world-class airport is hit hard by upheaval

Part of the 30 Years, 30 Changes series on the Pittsburgh region

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It wasn't that long ago that Pittsburgh travelers could fly just about anywhere in the country without changing planes. Now they can't even get a direct flight to Harrisburg.

The past 30 years have seen a major upheaval in the airline industry, and Pittsburgh has been a party to it -- or victim of it, some might say.

In 1983, Pittsburgh had an airport on the rise. Traffic was growing by leaps and bounds, spurred by the growth of USAir. A then-record 11.8 million travelers used the cramped airport that year. At peak times, the airport's 52 gates couldn't handle all the planes.

The crowding eventually led to the opening of the midfield terminal in 1992, with its 75 gates for jets and 25 for commuter aircraft, all built primarily to accommodate USAir -- now US Airways -- connecting operations.

With the new digs, passenger traffic soared to a record 20.7 million in 1997. Midfield became US Airways' largest connecting hub. The airport, at its peak, handled 633 nonstop flights a day to 114 destinations.

The bottom fell out after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. US Airways filed for bankruptcy twice and rejected its midfield leases. In late 2004, it shut down its Pittsburgh hub.

US Airways employment locally plummeted from 12,000 people to 1,800. Pittsburgh lost nonstop service to dozens of markets, including San Diego, Seattle, London, Paris and Harrisburg. Today, the airport has 156 daily nonstop flights to 35 destinations.

While the cutbacks opened the door for low-fare carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue, bringing cheaper fares to the region, local political and business officials have struggled to refill the half-empty airport.

There have been some gains -- Delta's spring-to-fall nonstop service to Paris and new seasonal flights to Punta Cana and Cancun, Southwest service to Nashville and Houston, and American's new nonstop service to Los Angeles, for example -- but not nearly enough to offset the losses.


Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. First Published October 27, 2013 12:00 AM

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