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Want to turn Pittsburgh into a power player? Make flying to and from easier

Pittsburgh International Airport

Pittsburgh International Airport

Pittsburgh International Airport

Kathryn Spitz Cohan knows firsthand the pain of limited nonstop flights into Pittsburgh International Airport.
 
Spitz Cohan is executive director of JFilm, a local group that presents independent movies focused on Jewish culture and issues of tolerance and humanity. She’s constantly battling the logistical difficulties of getting people to town for meetings, conferences, educational programs and film festivals. Last fall, one of those festivals, ReelAbilities Pittsburgh: Disabilities Film Festival, exemplified the limitations of air service issue for Spitz Cohan.
 
JFilm had booked a flight for a quadriplegic woman to fly into Pittsburgh from Los Angeles to attend ReelAbilities. There was no direct flight, so the woman would have to connect at a hub airport. After the fare had been purchased, festival officials realized that, because she was in a wheelchair, and all the attendant circumstances that come with such a scenario, the woman and her companion would not be able to make the connecting flight. Arrival and departure were just too tight.
 
“We had to call back to the airline and beg them not to charge us a change for two people,” Spitz Cohan said recently, recalling the nonprofit’s fear of additional expenses.
 
The airline accommodated the change without a fee, but Spitz Cohan remains adamant about the need to increase air service to Pittsburgh. Even when there are nonstop flights, they can be expensive.
 
“I brought in a filmmaker from New York in May and the flight was $700,” Spitz Cohan said. “I would much rather spend that money on something more impactful.”
 
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Back in 2000, Pittsburgh was a hub for US Airways and boasted more than 600 flights a day to 144 destinations.
 
“When we were a hub airport for US Airways, we had nonstops to almost everywhere that airline flies,” said Robert Kerlik, vice president of media relations for Allegheny County Airport Authority, which operates and maintains Pittsburgh International and Allegheny County airports. “When we were de-hubbed in 2004, we lost a lot of those flights.”
 
In 2013, Pittsburgh International had air service to just 36 destinations; many were connecting airports where passengers get on another plane to get where they really want to go.
 
And that’s what drives Spitz Cohan crazy. She said her guests might not have the best experience when visiting Pittsburgh if they’ve missed a connection or suffer jet lag from trips prolonged by layovers.
 
“There’s a lot of anxiety on my part because all I’m thinking about is that our audience participates in a fantastic event and that person goes away thinking they just left the best city in America,” she said.  “But they might not be as good as they could be because of the ordeal of getting here.”
 
Things have been showing signs of turning a corner of sorts in the last two years. With June’s announcement that Canadian carrier Porter Airlines will start two daily roundtrips from Pittsburgh to Toronto, the number is up to 175 flights daily, to 50 destinations.
 
When flights begin in September, Porter will join Sun Air, Allegiant and OneJet as carriers that have added service in recent months. In all, 18 new routes have been added since the beginning of 2014, Kerlik said.
 
Authority CEO Christina Cassotis, who took over in January, has stated her mission to increase air service, with specific focus on the West Coast and Europe.
 
Cassotis has help in her effort. Ken Zapinksi, vice president of energy and infrastructure for Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said his group has partnered with Allegheny County and the airport authority in a campaign to woo airlines to add flights at Pittsburgh International. The Regional Air Service Partnership marries air passenger data and regional business needs in a sales pitch to carriers.
 
“We are best in class when it comes to getting out and talking to the airlines as a community, organized,” Zapinski said.
 
JFilm’s Spitz Cohan and others might be frustrated with their specific needs for air service, but Kerlik and Zapinksi agree the big picture is hardly dire.
 
“Of the top 25 destinations where our passengers fly to, we have service to 24 of them,” Kerlik said. “San Diego is only destination we don't fly to.”
 
In fact, service from Pittsburgh to certain cities is better than it ever was, Zapinski said.
 
“If all you want to do is go to Chicago, New York or Boston, the airport is doing a great job for you,” he said.
 
Zapinksi said it’s tough to measure whether the level of air service at Pittsburgh International prevents Pittsburgh from becoming the economic success of those three cities.
 
“If there was a direct correlation between level of air service and economic success, Newark would be doing a heck of a lot better,” Zapinksi said.
 
At issue is the potential for things to happen, according to Zapinski. Maybe a local company decides against expansion because it’s too difficult to get to the West Coast. Maybe a German company looking to grow never considers Pittsburgh because there are no direct flights.
 
“What you can’t measure is how much better Pittsburgh would be if we had more air service,” Zapinksi said. “The real impact is in the lost opportunity for a Pittsburgh company that could have had a client fly nonstop from San Francisco or Los Angeles and cut a big deal that leads to revenue of $5 million.”
 
One aspect of the local economy that’s not hurting because of air service is tourism. VisitPITTSBURGH President and CEO Craig Davis said his group markets within 100 miles of the Golden Triangle, which means most tourists come by automobile. Even when it comes to conferences and conventions, air service is a nonfactor.
 
“We compete with Louisville, Cleveland, Columbus, all of which are two stops away,” Davis said. “Of similar cities, only Charlotte and Baltimore have better air service than Pittsburgh.”
 
Pittsburgh continues to rack up the accolades as a great destination for food, investment, baseball, livability, charm, retirement -- all despite having to connect to get where you want to go.

Still, Davis, like everyone, thinks more air service can only be a good thing. VisitPITTSBURGH provides in-kind support to Pittsburgh International through means such as promotion on its website.
 
“We’re working very hard to partner with the airport,” he said. “We want more flights because it’s just good for the city.”
 
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