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Population, geography keep Pittsburgh from being airline hub

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

It's been a decade since US Airways shuttered its once-bustling hub at Pittsburgh International Airport. United recently dumped its hub in Cleveland. And Delta dropped Memphis and has made deep cuts in Cincinnati.

The economic climate of the airline industry makes it nearly impossible for midsize cities like Pittsburgh to act as hubs, industry experts and airline officials said — and there's little local officials can do to stop the trend.

“The reality is that the economics of the industry have changed dramatically. Fifteen years ago, jet fuel was 40 cents a gallon. Now it's over $3 a gallon. You just can't fly as many planes. And keep in mind, there's only four major airlines left,” said Mike Boyd, president of Denver-based Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting company. “Pittsburgh has very strong air service, but it will never see a hub again.”

Experts said the rising cost of fuel means that airlines only use large planes, and those seats must be full to make a profit. Factor in geography and the Pittsburgh region's modest population, and airlines just aren't interested in a hub.

“US Airways didn't need Pittsburgh because they had Philadelphia and Charlotte. Philadelphia has more people, and Charlotte is a connecting point for the deep South,” Boyd said. “Communities get misled that they can get more nonstop service. That's mostly limited to connecting hubs.”

That hasn't stopped Pittsburgh from trying. The Allegheny County Airport Authority ousted its president, Brad Penrod, last month, amid a push from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald for more non-stop service. The authority board named James Gill as acting executive director while it searches for a new CEO.

“It's unfortunate that cities like us and a handful of others have lost hubs, but we have to rebrand and rebuild to bring back those services. Will we have an immediate hub opportunity? I'm not sure, but we can't wait for that. We have to be proactive,” Gill said. “Right now, there's not an appetite for more hubs because the airlines want to consolidate. But we have a great advantage, and that's capacity. We have gates and hangar facilities and an airfield that's not congested.”

Gill pointed to the airport's incentive program that helped lure Southwest service to Houston and Nashville last year.

Officials from the four major airlines all gave similar responses — population and geography — about why they pick certain cities for hubs. Southwest contends it doesn't use hubs and instead operates as a point-to-point airline, but midsize cities like Pittsburgh aren't among their top-10 airports.

Still, Southwest spokeswoman Michelle Agnew pointed to the airline's growth in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh services 36 cities with direct flights. Southwest flies to 11 of them with 22 average daily departures. Many nonstop flights are routed through Chicago, she said, because Southwest can get nearly everywhere from there.

“We've shown a commitment to those cities, and we've added daily flights,” Agnew said. “It comes down to demand and profitability of those routes.”

United spokeswoman Mary Clark said the airline's domestic hubs are in some of the nation's largest cities. United inherited Cleveland as a hub through its merger with Continental in 2010.

“It's based on traffic and geographic location,” she said.

American completed its merger with US Airways late last year, but the airlines are operating separately under one company for now. At US Airways' peak, Pittsburgh had more than 600 daily flights to 110 destinations. The city now has 145 daily flights to 36 cities. Despite its cuts in the last 15 years, US Airways still leads Pittsburgh with the most average daily flights — 41 — serving nine cities.

“It is important that our hubs are geographically located to attract connecting customers while also being situated in population centers that support sufficient demand for local traffic,” American spokesman Todd Lehmacher said.

Former Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Kent George, who left in 2007, said Pittsburgh doesn't have the population base or a strategic location to attract a hub.

“It's purely a business decision,” said George, who now heads the Fort Lauderdale airport. “The airlines have to make money.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886.

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