Business fliers find it tough to get here
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For years, the K&L Gates law firm routinely brought employees from its offices throughout the world into Pittsburgh for firmwide management meetings that, by extension, helped show off the city.
But for the past few years, the firm has held the meeting outside of New York City and this year selected a location near Washington, D.C., for the gathering. It wasn't for a change of scenery.
Rather, because of dramatic cutbacks in flights at Pittsburgh International Airport, it was becoming too hard to get people into the city. Many were left at the mercy of clogged and chaotic East Coast airports to make connections.
"We had some horror stories," K&L Gates Chairman Peter Kalis said. "You work like hell to recruit them into the firm, and then you subject them to the Philadelphia airport and you get what you deserve."
Mr. Kalis and his colleagues are among local business travelers who are finding that more and more, air travel from and to Pittsburgh is an ordeal akin to an Indiana Jones adventure, thanks in large part to cutbacks by US Airways.
"There are major cities throughout this country which require a lot of determination, ingenuity and Advil to travel to and return from," Mr. Kalis said.
It wasn't always that way. Before the Sept, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, business travelers from Pittsburgh could easily reach virtually any major city in the United States and three in Europe because of the presence of US Airways' connecting hub.
Back then, there were more than 110 nonstop destinations in all. Nearly eight years later, after the loss of the hub and what seems like a never-ending cycle of reductions by US Airways, Pittsburgh is down to 38 such destinations.
That's fewer than comparably sized cities like Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cleveland and Cincinnati, the latter four of which are still hubs for a carrier.
Over the past eight years, Pittsburgh has lost nonstop service to cities such as Seattle, Buffalo, Columbus, Harrisburg, Kansas City, Nashville, New Orleans, Providence, San Diego and Toledo. Flights to Frankfurt, London and Paris have been dropped, although the latter will resume in June.
Even for remaining nonstop flights, the frequency in many cases is nowhere near what it used to be. Only one nonstop flight a day is available to Los Angeles and San Francisco, both major West Coast destinations.
"The convenience of flying is gone in many ways," said Robert Lewis, chief executive officer of Orbital Engineering and a former Allegheny County Airport Authority board member.
In some ways, the US Airways retrenchment has been a boon for the region, opening the door for low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines and JetBlue to enter the market and allowing another, AirTran Airways, to expand.
Ten years ago, local travelers complained about fares so high from Pittsburgh International Airport that former Mayor Tom Murphy once drove to Cleveland to catch a cheaper flight. Pittsburgh fares then were among the highest in the country, thanks to the US Airways fortress hub.
Between 2000 and 2008, as US Airways slashed flights and other airlines stepped in, Pittsburgh fares have fallen from an average of $430.42 to $327.34, or nearly 24 percent -- one of the biggest drops in the country. Fares are now below the national average.
"No major American airport has done a better job at lowering air fares than Pittsburgh International Airport," said Kenneth J. Zapinski, senior vice president of the transportation and infrastructure program at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
For many business travelers, pocketbook gains are no match for headaches associated with the loss of so many flights.
Longtime fliers accustomed to door-to-door service are finding they have to make one or more stops along the way. A business trip that once could be done in a day now requires at least an overnight stay, maybe more.
"It's really changed dramatically. It wasn't long ago that you could fly direct from Pittsburgh to almost any other destination," said attorney Charles Greenberg. "Now there's so few it makes the process of traveling for business much more difficult and time consuming."
The Allegheny Conference has tried to maintain competitive air service from Pittsburgh by having at least twice daily nonstop flights to the top 30 business destinations it has identified through surveys. But Mr. Zapinski acknowledged it has fallen short of that goal in eight of those markets.
"We're not anywhere close to hitting that on the domestic side," he said.
The loss of flights has affected businesses small and large. Not even UPMC, one of the region's largest employers, is immune. Spokeswoman Susan Manko said the health-care giant's researchers and physicians have felt the impact of the same cuts, locally and industrywide, that have bedeviled so many others.
"They're still going [on trips] but it's more time consuming and inconvenient," she said. "The flights aren't offered at convenient times. More and more people are driving rather than flying whenever they can, like to Washington, D.C."
For business travelers, cutbacks mean more time in the air and at airports, and more frequent connections, increasing chances of missed flights or other travel delays.
Hours spent in airports waiting for the next flight also take away from time businesspeople could be spending doing their jobs. BlackBerrys go only so far.
To Mr. Kalis, there's far more at stake than inconvenience, frustration and higher stress levels. He sees the region falling behind competitively with each cut in nonstop service.
"This has happened at the Pittsburgh airport at the same time during which many Pittsburgh industries and businesses have consolidated and globalized. So you can see the emerging paradox.
"In an age of globalization and consolidation in which Pittsburgh is well positioned to participate, we are losing transportation capacity rather than gaining it," he said.
Rightly or wrongly, the reductions help fuel the perception "of a city that is in jeopardy of being de-linked from national and global economies through poor air service." That perception can influence decisions about whether businesses relocate here, whether young people attend the universities, whether more mature people locate their careers here, he said.
"Much of what happens is beyond our control. Some is within our control. We have to target that and make it happen," said Mr. Kalis, an Allegheny Conference board member.
One point of contention for many local businesses has been the lack of nonstop service to Europe, which US Airways dropped altogether in 2004. Since then, transatlantic trips more often than not have entailed connections through clogged airports in New York, Newark or Philadelphia, the latter a particular source of pain.
"There are few things more frustrating than that," said Kent McElhattan, chairman and CEO of Oakdale-based Industrial Scientific whose European headquarters is about an hour from Paris. "That airport is just a miserable airport."
At least in his case, help is on the way. Starting June 3, Delta launches nonstop service between Pittsburgh and Paris.
Regional leaders saw the service as so imperative that they agreed to offer $9 million in potential subsidies over two years to supplement the flight if it falls short of agreed-to revenue targets. For Mr. McElhattan, the new flight is a godsend for his company, which makes as many as 200 round trips a year between Pittsburgh and Paris.
"We want to support that flight. We're insisting that people who are coming from France to Pittsburgh use that flight and that our people here use it to go there. Of course, they're delighted to do so," he said.
Others see the flight as a litmus test that could help efforts to secure more domestic and international nonstop service. But it also could have the opposite effect if there isn't sufficient support.
"I think the most important thing the community can do to build traffic, expand service, get more flights and destinations is for the new Delta flight to be a success," Mr. Zapinski said. "The industry will look at that as a bellwether as to whether the community can support expanded service."
Pittsburgh managed to stave off more losses last week when United Airlines announced it would begin once daily nonstop service to Los Angeles and San Francisco Sept. 2 to replace the same flights being cut by US Airways Aug. 18. Mr. Zapinski said United's decision "shows the strength and vitality of the Pittsburgh market" given that the airline has been cutting jets and capacity systemwide.
He believes nonstop service is still good to big markets like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Where business travel suffers, he said, is to secondary markets like Providence, Richmond, Louisville, San Diego and Seattle.
Mr. Zapinski sees potential for that to change as the economy improves and airlines, which have been cutting flights and seats, start to expand.
But Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant who has done work for Pittsburgh International, considers that a long shot. He believes Pittsburgh became a hub "by accident" because US Airways forerunner Allegheny Airlines got its start here. He doesn't think the city is currently underserved.
"People at the airport are doing everything they can to improve it, but they can't pull airplane rabbits out of their hats," he said.
One novel approach the county Airport Authority is taking to try to beef up nonstop service and feed more traffic to the airlines is through the Pittsburgh Connector project.
It's trying to persuade regional airline Cape Air to launch service between Pittsburgh International and smaller cities in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, authority Executive Director Bradley D. Penrod said.
Talks are ongoing, but no commitments have been made. The authority also has talked to Cape Air about adding nonstop service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, a flight that was dropped by US Airways. Mr. Kalis described it as "lunacy" that there is no nonstop service between those two cities.
"The passenger volume between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg is of some interest," Mr. Penrod said. "We've suggested that to them."
Mr. Kalis acknowledged that the airport, the conference and local politicians were fighting to secure more nonstop service against the backdrop of some very difficult industry trends.
"For Pittsburgh, the realistic hope is that we maintain nonstops to as many commercial and financial centers as possible in the U.S. and that we pull out all the stops to support the Delta European Gateway flights," he said.
For now, Mr. Kalis will keep the Advil handy. Others will cope the best they can.
"You can live with these things. You can adapt to them," said Richard Grant, an attorney who travels about every other week. "But I sure do wish we had a little more service."
First Published May 3, 2009 12:00 am