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Some fliers bailing out on ailing US Airways

| Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2004

Pittsburgh's economic development gurus might be lamenting US Airways' flight reductions and worrying about alternatives, but many local travelers are moving on.

The financially ailing airline, now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, has slashed Pittsburgh International Airport service from 373 daily nonstop flights to 102 destinations to 240 daily nonstop flights to 65 destinations. No matter to many travelers at Pittsburgh International. They are embracing low-cost carriers and counting themselves fortunate to have more cash in their wallets at the end of their journeys.

"We just flew Independence (Air) round trip to New York City for $160. With US Airways, it would have been $850," said Hildy Heffernan, as she waited to claim her luggage at with co-worker Chris Senko, of Mt. Lebanon.

The women, employees of Kathleen Clements Design, were in New York on business.

Senko said the trip from Pittsburgh through Independence's Washington, D.C., hub at Dulles International Airport was smooth, and airline employees were pleasant. "It's almost like they're happy to have your business," she said.

Senko, however, is worried about her husband. He flies out of Pittsburgh three to four times a week on business, almost always on US Airways. She said he's 6-foot-4 and almost 250 pounds, and relishes the opportunity to use his frequent flyer miles to fly first class.

"It's going to be hard on him. He can't sit on the kind of (smaller airplane) I just sat on," Senko said.

Leonard Silk, of Shadyside, flies out of Pittsburgh regularly for his work in real estate development. Usually, he flies US Airways. But when the airline eliminated service to Memphis --- where Silk has a project -- he found a flight on Northwest Airlines.

Still, he's "lamenting the demise" of US Airways' hub at Pittsburgh International. "As bad as US Airways is, in a lot of ways I think we'll miss them. There was a time when I felt like I supported US Airways. I wanted them to stay."

Airport limo driver Jonathan Kraus said he's seen the passengers he ferries to and from the airport make adjustments this summer.

"My pickups and deliveries used to be almost 100 percent US Airways customers" before that airline began to reduce flights. "In the last couple of months, they've been running about two-to-one with other airlines," Kraus said.

Transportation expert Thom Nulty, a former senior executive at American Airlines and Continental Airlines and retired president of Navigant, one of the nation's largest travel agencies, said Pittsburgh International will continue to add service from other airlines as US Airways contracts.

"I'm sure there are a lot of (airline executives) out there pushing their calculators to decide whether they should or should not" add local service, Nulty said.

Even the region's biggest businesses are looking for and finding alternatives.

"I took Independence to Washington Dulles and back, and it was fine," said Michael Koff, spokesman for the Sony Technology Center-Pittsburgh. "I had to book the flight with a week's notice. To fly Independence from Pittsburgh to Dulles, it was $89 round trip. To go US Airways to Reagan (National Airport in Washington), it was more than $600."

Though he was pleased with his experience on low-cost Independence, Koff worries that US Airways' decision to eliminate its Pittsburgh International hub will hurt the region's image with large companies considering a move here.

Some might not find alternatives to US Airways' flights at Pittsburgh International. The airline's nonstop flight to Frankfurt, Germany, is a case in point.

The flight had been Pittsburgh's only regular transatlantic flight. Losing it was a psychological blow and an inconvenience for the region's many companies that have ties to Germany.

"It turns us into a third-tier market, and we prefer to remain a second-tier market," said Ronnie Bryant, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.

The alliance was so alarmed over the loss that it and another business group, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, launched a campaign to lure Lufthansa Airlines to Pittsburgh International to fill the void. Scores of businesses were asked to contribute to a marketing fund to offer incentives to Lufthansa. They also were asked to write commitment letters to the airline detailing their needs for transatlantic service.

Bryant said the group has yet to reach its $500,000 goal, but characterized response to the campaign as encouraging.

"It's very important for us," he said. "To be a competitive business location, we have to have direct domestic and international flights to these markets. Whether it's Lufthansa or US Airways, we need this particular route covered."

Matthew J. Hausmann, of e-Travel, Inc., a national business travel firm, isn't so sure.

"The reality is there are very few cities in the U.S. that offer" direct transatlantic service, he said. "My intuition is the majority of people traveling internationally through Pittsburgh already make a connection through JFK (International Airport in New York) or Dulles. I live in Boston, which has any number of international flights, but I often go through JFK."

A former Pittsburgher, Hausmann said he hopes Pittsburgh's leaders view US Airways' retrenchment as an opportunity for positive change, rather than another setback for the region.

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