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(David Kidd)

The Revival of a Once-Bustling Airport

The airline industry has changed, forcing cities to rethink the role their airports play. Pittsburgh has.
by | May 2019

Christina Cassotis wanted a flight to London. But not for herself. As the CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, Cassotis wanted to restore London service from the Pittsburgh International Airport, which had lost it in 1999.

Back then, the route made sense for British Airways: Pittsburgh was a US Airways hub, which meant it could connect flyers from Europe to destinations all over the United States. But US Airways pulled out of Pittsburgh in 2004 (and then was subsumed by American Airlines a decade later). After Cassotis was hired at the airport in 2015, one of her first meetings was with British Airways officials to start the process of luring the international carrier back to her airport.

It wouldn’t be an easy sell: The airline could choose any destination within flying distance of London for new service. But Cassotis has racked up a number of successes since she was brought on to revitalize Pittsburgh’s once-bustling airport. In less than four years, she has increased the number of destinations served from 37 to 67, and doubled the number of carriers from eight to 16. The number of passengers using the airport has increased by 20 percent, reaching its highest level since 2007. She’s accomplished that not by hanging her hopes on attracting an airline hub to replace US Airways, but by bringing back the airport one destination and one airline at a time.  

Still, restoring service to England loomed large. “London was this big gaping hole in the portfolio here,” Cassotis says. So she set out to woo British Airways back. The intense three-year courtship that followed reflects the new realities that midsize U.S. airports face today in an era of airline consolidation. It underscores the shift toward a truly global marketplace, one in which cities aren’t just competing with peers in other states but with far-flung destinations on other continents. And it suggests that former hub cities can still compete, even if their original business model no longer works. 

When Pittsburgh International opened in 1992, it signaled a new era in air travel for the city. After the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s, civic leaders had looked to diversify the area’s economy. Rebuilding the airport to accommodate US Airways’ growing business was part of that strategy. 

“Pittsburgh was flat on its back,” says Rich Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County executive. One of the moves the county commissioners made was to invest in a new airport. “We built it for US Air,” Fitzgerald says, “hoping that they would grow jobs here, putting their hub and their headquarters here.” The move meant replacing the beloved “Greater Pitt” airport which, when it opened in 1952, was one of the largest airports in the country. Despite several expansions over the years, the airport couldn’t handle the volume of traffic US Airways was bringing in. The new airport was four times the size of its predecessor.

Because it was built to be a hub, Pittsburgh International was designed to make it easy for people to switch planes. Its 75 gates are arranged in an “X” shape, which cuts the distance passengers must walk to get from one gate to another. At ground level, eight miles of conveyor belts move luggage around the entire “X,” so that bags are easily transferred from one plane to another. The layout also makes it easy for planes to get to their gates. They can circle the airport with no obstructions and approach their gates from one direction and leave by the other. Having all the planes go in the same direction minimizes wait times and, importantly for the airlines, reduces fuel consumption. The airport’s four runways allow different planes to take off and land at the same time, even in bad weather. (Airlines often divert their planes to Pittsburgh when other airports in the Northeast are closed because of bad weather.)

 


Christina Cassotis has overhauled the way Pittsburgh International Airport does business. (David Kidd)

 

The hub approach meant some tradeoffs for Pittsburgh-based passengers. They enter the airport through a separate building for ticketing, baggage claims and security and then must take an underground train for half a mile to get to their gates. They also paid a premium to fly. With US Airways the dominant carrier, there was very little competition that would have lowered ticket prices. 

For a while, Pittsburgh’s strategy paid off. Traffic at the airport reached 20 million passengers in the late 1990s, only one-fifth of which came from the Pittsburgh market. But the drawback of building a hub for US Airways is that it tied the airport’s fortunes to those of its chief tenant. 

US Airways grew rapidly in the 1980s, in part by buying other airlines. Starting in the 1990s, though, it ran into several problems, and its shareholders pressed it to be sold. A planned takeover by the parent company of United Airlines fell apart in early 2001. The 9/11 terrorist attacks later that year left the entire airline industry reeling, but US Airways was especially hard-hit. It filed for bankruptcy twice between 2002 and 2004. Amid those troubles, US Airways abandoned its hub in Pittsburgh, setting off a cascade of problems that nearly bankrupted the airport. The carrier had signed a 30-year lease, and the county had issued $600 million in bonds that were supposed to be paid for by the airline. The county scrambled to keep afloat, using state aid tied to gaming revenue to help plug the holes. When that wasn’t enough, the airport, which owns 9,000 acres atop the Marcellus shale formation, leased its land for natural gas mining.

In short, says Fitzgerald, the pullout of US Airways was a financial gut-punch for Pittsburgh. “That was a second devastating economic blow after steel in the early ’80s.” 

 

Local leaders worried that having an airport with declining passenger traffic and fewer destinations was hampering the region’s efforts to remake its economy. They had worked with area universities to build Pittsburgh into a tech hub, with special emphasis on robotics, artificial intelligence, finance and life sciences. By the start of this decade, those efforts had begun to pay off. Google, Facebook and Ford now have significant operations there; Uber hired 1,000 employees to test autonomous vehicles.

Many of those new investors and tech executives wanted direct flights to the West Coast or to Europe, where they were based -- connections that were lost when US Airways left town. So after the county stabilized the finances at the airport, Fitzgerald and other local leaders conducted a national search for a new director. Their biggest goal: more destinations.

That’s partly what made Cassotis an attractive candidate. She had no connections to the Pittsburgh area (she’s from Boston), and she had never been an airport executive. But she had spent 17 years as a consultant whose main job was to help airports attract new airline service. It was exactly the kind of expertise the search committee wanted. Six weeks into her job, Cassotis shared her vision for the airport with the public for the first time. It caused some consternation. When she told a gathering of local tech leaders that she wanted to “drive a stake into the heart of the hub,” Cassotis recalls “an audible gasp in the room.” 

 


The airport is embarking on a $1.1 billion modernization project. (David Kidd)

 

But she understood that in the decade since US Airways left Pittsburgh, the airline industry had changed drastically. Airlines were consolidating, and when they did, they concentrated their operations at bigger airports. Other midsize hubs like Cleveland, Nashville and St. Louis had also seen their primary carriers leave and their traffic evaporate. At the same time, other changes in the industry made it easier for Pittsburgh to focus on its role as an “origin-and-destination” airport rather than a pass-through hub. One development was the growth of ultra-low-cost carriers like Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit and Sun Country. These airlines offer bare-bones service, often to popular vacation spots, and move in and out of markets relatively quickly. Meanwhile, established airlines were adding long-range aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner that are smaller and more fuel efficient than older models, like the 747, and could service cities that aren’t hubs.

“We had to redefine expectations, but also redefine success,” Cassotis says. She points out that the origin-and-destination market “is a lot more certain. If an airline pulls out, someone else will fill the market need, because people want to go there.”

Cassotis spent a lot of time changing minds. She had to emphasize that getting new service wasn’t about convincing airlines that Pittsburgh was a great city that deserved a new route. Rather, it was based on how service in Pittsburgh would align with the airline’s existing network. “There’s not an airline CEO who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘What are we going to do for Pittsburgh?’” Cassotis is fond of saying. “We have to be working from, ‘What can we do for them?’”

 


The landside terminal is now being relocated directly adjacent to the gates. (Rendering: AP/Allegheny County Airport Authority)

 

That shift in thinking also recognized that the airport’s main competitors weren’t other nearby cities but sometimes those on far-off continents. British Airways, for example, can send a Dreamliner anywhere within 9,000 nautical miles of London; any city in that radius is a potential rival. 

The move to an origin-and-destination business model means the airport has to go beyond making sure runways are plowed and that flying is safe and efficient. 

It must work closely with area businesses, civic groups and tourism organizations. “Before, our pitch was based on having a great airport,” says Craig Davis, the CEO of Visit Pittsburgh. Now the city had to show airlines that the community supported what the airport was doing. So Cassotis invited Davis, along with Pittsburgh business leaders, to go with her to the global World Routes conference, where airline executives meet with airport officials once a year to discuss new service. “The airlines expect to see the airport there,” Davis says. “But having the tourism agency there is very refreshing to them. It suggests there is a real commitment.”

Such close cooperation makes it possible for the airport to keep tabs on companies that are opening new offices or expanding into new lines of business in other regions, and on what plans local business leaders have for travel. That information helps build the case for new routes by, say, figuring out how many oil and gas executives working in the Marcellus shale need to fly back and forth to Texas. 

Audrey Russo, the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, says the collaboration works in other ways. The federal government, for instance, puts tight restrictions on how airport revenue can be spent, but the tech council can market the airport and Pittsburgh in other cities in ways the airport itself could not. The airport, meanwhile, promotes the local tech industry with displays and videos for visitors to see in the terminals. The airport also provides amenities like Wi-Fi that are important to the tech community, and regularly meets with the group about developments in the air travel industry. “It’s in our mutual interest to partner, because of the need we have for talent, capital, leisure and business travel,” Russo says. “Those are critical variables that are needed to grow a city.”

 

Pittsburgh International Airport has tallied up a lot of wins since Cassotis took over four years ago. It restored flights to Europe, added more regular service to the West Coast and welcomed a charter flight from China, which Pittsburgh business leaders hope will be a sign of more connections in the future. Passenger traffic increased for four straight years, something that hasn’t happened at Pittsburgh since at least the 1990s. In the span of one year, two different industry organizations named Pittsburgh International “Airport of the Year.” 

But all the while, Cassotis and her team were still pursuing a connection to London. They started, as everyone in the business does, by analyzing traffic data. They knew those numbers alone wouldn’t convince British Airways, so they tried to figure out how they could persuade the airline’s executives that Pittsburgh fit into their business model. “We met them at conferences. We met them at their headquarters,” Cassotis says. “We worked hard to get them here, to actually show them that Pittsburgh is not a rundown steel town, and they were shocked.”

The visits also helped Pittsburgh allay another of the airline’s qualms: that it wouldn’t be able to sell enough tickets in coach. That was an odd thing to be concerned about: Airlines are typically more worried about selling their first class and business class seats, which generate higher profits. As British Airways officials struggled to explain why they were concerned about coach, Cassotis offered this: “Is it that nobody wants to go to Pittsburgh for vacation?” “Exactly,” they said. So Pittsburgh tourism officials played up the city as a place where European visitors could experience America apart from New York, Las Vegas and Orlando.

Of course, airport officials also emphasized all the other benefits of Pittsburgh International. They pointed out that the airport, with its experience as a hub, could offer amenities like catering kitchens and ground-handling equipment that similar-sized markets often don’t have. They got third parties to vouch for the Pittsburgh airport, even when those third parties were other airlines. That meant paying special attention to American Airlines, because American Airlines and British Airways are part of the same corporate alliance. “If BA thought we were fantastic and picked up the phone and called American, and [American] said, ‘No way,’ that’s not going to get us far,” Cassotis says. 

 


Pittsburgh’s airport opened in 1992 and was designed specifically to serve as a hub for U.S. Airways. (David Kidd)

 

The key, she says, is tying the organization’s focus into everything the airport does every day -- keeping bathrooms and lounges clean, runways plowed, jet bridges in place on time, baggage delivered quickly. “That stuff matters,” she says. “There’s no job here that’s unimportant to our retaining or attracting new airline service.”

Last year, the airport even sponsored a reception at the new U.S. embassy in London. Government and business leaders from Pittsburgh were on hand to talk up the city. Tour operators and travel writers who were looking into Pittsburgh were there. The city invited U.K. employees of Pittsburgh companies to join them. “I think it was a little bit like, ‘Wow. You guys are walking the walk,’” Cassotis says. “But it took three years of building credibility for them to really see if we were real.”

Soon afterward, Cassotis got the call she’d been hoping for. British Airways would begin flying in and out of Pittsburgh in the spring. 

One of the last remaining details was how much the airport would chip in to subsidize the service. The payments are politically unpopular, but Cassotis says they’re necessary to compete. “For BA to fly that 787 in here, it will cost them $50 million. I promise you $1.5 million a year [in contribution from the airport] did not tip the scale for them. What it does is make them feel you’re in it with us, you’re going to work hard to make sure it succeeds. The worst thing in the world is to bring an airline in and say, ‘Hey, we’re done!’”

The first Pittsburgh-to-London flight in 20 years took off last month. Now, Cassotis is embarking on a project to update the airport’s facilities to match its new, more targeted mission: a $1.1 billion modernization of the airport’s landside terminal that houses its ticketing and security operations. The new facility will be attached to the gates -- no more underground train or eight miles of conveyor belt for luggage. Instead, passengers will be able to get off their planes and walk straight to baggage claim. The plan will reduce the number of gates at the airport from 75 to 51, but the airport currently only uses 40 anyway. The new building will take away the ability of aircraft to circle the terminals, but it will reduce upkeep costs.

 


The first Pittsburgh-to-London flight in 20 years took off last month. (Shutterstock)

 

Cassotis is also talking with the Federal Aviation Administration about permanently closing one of the airport’s four runways, which otherwise would be due for reconstruction, in order to save on building and maintenance costs. 

“This was not built for Pittsburgh, this was built for US Airways,” Cassotis says while sitting in her office in the landside terminal, gesturing to the gates out her window. “This building doesn’t work for the market we have today. The best way of reducing our costs and increasing our efficiency is to put a terminal out there.”

Meanwhile, the airport is trying to build more business using some of its underutilized assets, like land it owns. Airport officials are developing some 3,000 acres of land on their property for businesses to locate nearby and are working to build up the airport’s cargo traffic. The goal, Cassotis says, is to run the airport more like a company without losing sight of the airport’s role as a public entity.

The path to airport recovery is hardly ever smooth. WOW Air, an Iceland-based discount carrier that was providing service between Pittsburgh and Reykjavik, stopped flying into Pittsburgh in January. (Facing serious financial difficulties, the airline ceased operations on all its flights in late March.) 

The loss of the airline was a blow. It catered to a different set of customers than British Airways does. Without it, the discount travelers in Pittsburgh’s market will no longer have year-round transAtlantic service. “You never get to rest on your laurels,” Cassotis says. “There’s no backing off.”

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