2009-05-28 / Local & State

No End In Sight To Pittsburgh Airport Woes

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Pittsburgh International Airport has seen dwindling traffic over the last decade due to flight reductions by US Airways, high fuel prices and the slumping economy - and officials say there is no end in sight.

The airport, which once had more than 600 daily departures, offered 158 in March. It served 20.8 million passengers in 1997 but last year had its worst year ever with 8.7 million - and the number dropped nearly 12 percent in the first three months of this year from the same period last year.

The airport has nonstop flights to 34 markets, the lowest number since the terminal opened in 1992.

"It's tough sledding out there, there's no question about that,'' said Glenn Mahone, chairman of the Allegheny County Airport Authority's board of directors, which runs the facility. "There have been ongoing declines principally related to the pullback of US Airways.''

The airline once provided 85 percent of Pittsburgh service but now has less than one-third of the total, with 47 flights a day to 12 cities, a number that will drop further after it stops serving Los Angeles and San Francisco in August. In March 2001, US Airways had 515 daily departures and nonstop flights to more than 100 domestic destinations.

"Nobody is happy with the number of domestic markets that are served,'' said Ken Zapinski, senior vice president for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Along with the US Airways reductions, the airport was hit by flight cuts following last summer's record-high oil prices and the recession that has drastically reduced business travel.

Low-cost carriers such as Jet- Blue, AirTran Airways and Southwest Airlines had begun serving Pittsburgh and were expanding until oil prices spiked and the economy slowed.

The Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. carriers, forecasts 14 million fewer passengers this summer than last year, a drop of 7 percent. And the fewer flights operating out of the western Pennsylvania airport, the higher the fees to be charged to all carriers, reducing the likelihood that service will be added.

Carriers at Pittsburgh International Airport now have some of the highest per-passenger costs in the nation - $15.80 as of March. Moody's Investor Service says the average cost per passenger at 116 airports is $6.24.

And while Zapinski says passengers have reaped the benefit of lower fares, travel agent Michael Philopena says the loss of nonstop flights has been a big factor in reducing business travel.

"It used to be ... (they) could leave first thing in the morning, do a luncheon meeting and be back to Pittsburgh that evening,'' said Philopena, a managing partner of Vacation Station Travel in Greensburg. "Now they waste more than half the day just getting there and have to stay overnight before getting the connecting flights home.''

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