Local business leaders want more nonstop flights to Europe
Gil Garcia, 55, of Hilton Head, S.C., waits for his flight at the Pittsburgh International Airport on March 6. Mr. Garcia, a software engineer, was in Pittsburgh for a business trip.
Share with others:
Eleven years ago, business travelers could fly nonstop to London, Paris or Frankfurt, Germany, from Pittsburgh International Airport, then a top hub for US Airways.
These days, those same travelers can at least get to Paris nonstop -- for part of the year, and four to five days a week.
For some local companies with extensive business in Europe, particularly Germany, that's better than no flight at all, but far from optimal.
"We still think there's a lot of work to be done," said Bryan Iams, head of strategic and external communications for Bayer Corp. "Direct service to Germany would be important to us."
For businesses, direct connections to Europe and frequent domestic destinations are critical because they allow employees to avoid the hassle of time-consuming connections that eat into productivity. Time is money, as the saying goes.
"Travel takes time, and time is a precious commodity," Mr. Iams said. "These days, of course, the less time people spend traveling, the more efficient they can be in conducting business."
Since US Airways dropped Pittsburgh as a hub in 2004 -- costing the city hundreds of flights and thousands of jobs -- efficiency in travel has become more and more elusive.
In August 2001, in its heyday as a hub, Pittsburgh International had 633 daily nonstop flights to 114 destinations. Today, there are 144 daily nonstops to 34 cities.
Direct international service ended altogether in November 2004 when US Airways dropped flights to London and Frankfurt. It did not resume until June 2009, when Delta launched the nonstop service to Paris, backed by $9 million in subsidies from the state and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
While Pittsburgh has nonstop service to top business markets such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, it does not have direct flights to San Diego, Seattle, Indianapolis or Kansas City, Mo., and has limited service to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Mr. Iams said getting employees to and from both international and domestic destinations in a timely manner has become more and more difficult.
"I would say it's a challenge for us and it would help our business if we would have more efficient routes to reach customers in the United States," he said.
Delta Air Lines will resume its nonstop service to Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport on Saturday after shutting it down for the winter. The flight initially will be available on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. It will expand to five days a week -- Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays -- in June.
Some companies with German ties view the Paris flight with mixed emotions -- they like the convenience of a nonstop to Europe, but long for more.
While the Paris service is a "great step," it's "just not getting us where we need to be," said Randy Dearth, president and CEO of Lanxess Corp., a German company whose headquarters is in Leverkusen.
Mr. Dearth said the Paris service is limited because it doesn't operate in the winter and is confined to four or five days a week. As a result, international travel can be "tough" for employees and the company, he said.
"We lose a lot of time and money by having to travel through major hubs" in New York and other cities, he said.
With such limited service, it's becoming harder to get people from Europe to Pittsburgh, Mr. Dearth said. He added that the company has been forced to have meetings in New York with its German counterparts "because they can't get to Pittsburgh." That means lost business and tax revenue for Pittsburgh.
"If it's happening with Lanxess, I know it's happening with other companies," he said.
Like Mr. Dearth, Mr. Iams sees the Paris service as a step in the right direction. He said it has been particularly helpful in allowing employees to bypass customs in New York or Newark in favor of Pittsburgh.
Nonetheless, Bayer and Lanxess would like to see direct service to Germany. That, Mr. Iams said, "would be an important next step from our vantage point in further improving the service from Pittsburgh International Airport."
He noted that the majority of Bayer employees traveling to Europe end their flights in Germany. A quarter of Bayer's corporate flights are international.
Both Bayer and Lanxess have headquarters in Leverkusen, between Cologne and Dusseldorf. Bayer would like to see a direct air link to either Dusseldorf or Frankfurt.
About 70 to 80 German-based companies currently have offices in the Pittsburgh region, employing as many as 11,000 people, said Jeffrey Deane, CEO of Malin Bergquist, a regional CPA firm that is part of the German American Business Circle.
Although the companies appreciate the Delta flight, "Flying through Paris is not their favorite route," he said. While local leaders have pressed businesses to use the flight for transatlantic travel, Mr. Deane acknowledged that some firms prefer to fly to other major cities in the U.S. and transfer to a plane that will fly them directly to Dusseldorf.
"They struggle with that a little bit," he said.
At the same time, Mr. Deane has talked to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development about the potential for service into Germany. He believes local businesses might be willing to commit to buying a certain number of seats if an airline will take a chance on such a flight. He said he is in the process of surveying companies to see if there is an interest.
Ken Zapinski, the conference's senior vice president of the transportation and infrastructure program, declined to say whether the agency was talking to any airlines about possible service to Germany or any other destination.
Asked if Germany was the next logical choice for international service, he replied, "I would say we're always working to increase the breadth and scope of international service from Pittsburgh because it's important to the regional economy."
While Pittsburgh has nowhere near the level of the international service that it had at its peak as a hub, it is doing better than many of its peer cities.
Neither Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Kansas City or St. Louis have a transatlantic flight. Like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati has a nonstop flight to Paris. Baltimore has nonstop service to London's Heathrow Airport. It will launch a twice-weekly, seasonal nonstop flight to Frankfurt in July.
"Typically most transatlantic service is clustered at hub airports. To that extent, Pittsburgh having transatlantic service is unusual on the face of it because we are not a hub," Mr. Zapinski said.
On the domestic side, Pittsburgh, with 144 daily nonstop flights to 34 cities, lags behind some of its peers.
Cleveland, for example, has 170 nonstop flights daily to 71 destinations. Kansas City has more than 200 daily nonstops to 48 cities and St. Louis has 260 daily direct flights to 62 destinations. While Delta has dramatically scaled back its Cincinnati hub, the airport still has 170 daily nonstops to 49 cities.
Pittsburgh is comparable to Indianapolis, which has 135 daily direct flights to 34 destinations, and Columbus, with 149 flights to 33 cities.
Rich Fitzgerald, in his first months as county executive, said he plans to market the airport aggressively in a bid to increase service, both domestically and internationally.
The county and the airport authority, he said, will be "working with the airlines, working with the Federal Aviation Administration and working with the industry to make Pittsburgh more competitive."
He believes he can sell airlines on adding international service here because the airport is so much less congested than those on the East Coast and in the northeast. Delays because of congestion eat up fuel and productivity and add to the cost of flying, he said.
"It's a matter of making the case for how efficient and effective Pittsburgh International Airport is," Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Bringing more flights to Pittsburgh as fuel prices are rising and airlines are merging, closing hubs and cutting service is a tall order. But count James E. Rohr, PNC Financial Services Group chairman and CEO, as among those who believe it must be done.
In a speech at the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership's annual meeting recently, he called increasing service one of the region's top challenges. Good access to international markets is not only important to businesses here for competitive reasons but it's also a good recruiting tool to help bring companies to Pittsburgh.
"We've got to add flights, and we've got to add international flights," he said.
First Published March 20, 2012 12:00 am