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Pittsburgh International lowered its airline fees, but some airports went even lower

Theresa Clift
| Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, 4:27 p.m.
Travelers go through security at Pittsburgh International Airport on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Travelers go through security at Pittsburgh International Airport on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.

Sixty-nine airports charged airlines lower fees compared to Pittsburgh International Airport last year, according to new Moody's data — up from 66 in 2015.

The fees, known collectively as the cost per enplanement, are a key factor for some airlines in deciding where to add or expand service.

Despite the airport's slightly lower fees – from $12.89 per departing passenger in 2015 to $12.86 in 2016 to $12.85 in 2017 — the airport found itself moving in the wrong direction on the Moody's list, as other airports decreased their rates by larger amounts.

In the 2015 rankings, Pittsburgh charged less than airports in New Hampshire, St. Louis and Memphis. In the new rankings, those three airports lowered fees by more than Pittsburgh.

The airport has committed to lower its fees to $11.30 per departing passenger in 2018, and plans to lower it to $9.73 in 2023 after rebuilding its landside terminal.

The median rate for medium-sized origin and destination airports like Pittsburgh is $8.10, according to Moody's.

The fees make up a relatively small part of an airline's total expenses — about 7 percent of Southwest Airlines' total operating expenses in 2014 and 2015, for example — but can be a major factor in deciding where to expand service, especially for cost-sensitive carriers like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant.

Pittsburgh is one of nine airports in the country with all three of those carriers.

Frontier has so far canceled three of the five routes it launched last year, while Spirit has canceled one of the seven routes it started earlier this year.

When asked earlier this week what could be improved at the Pittsburgh airport, Spirit CEO Robert Fornaro said the top two factors the carrier considers about any airport is its quality and its fees.

Spirit's headquarters is between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Fornaro said. Because of Miami's high fee, the discount airline offers no service to Miami, and made Fort Lauderdale its largest base of operations.

“I'd say a lot of that has to do with pricing. And Fort Lauderdale... has become a domestic opportunity for virtually every airline. So that can actually make a difference in the way we view airports.”

The Miami airport charged $19.76 per departing passenger in 2016, while Fort Lauderdale charged $3.94.

Fees are not the only factor, though, he said.

The airline last year launched service to Newark, N.J., one of the airports with the highest fee rates in the country — $24.91 in 2016, according to Moody's.

“It's a constrained airport. Like NYC, it's unlikely there will be any more gates built, so it's the price of access because it's just a huge market,” Fornaro said. “So it's a different set of decisions for any market. You have to look at all the variables then ultimately make a decision, but again, cost plays a key role.”

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, tclift@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tclift.

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