In 2004, U.S. Airways decided to close its Pittsburgh hub, taking hundreds of daily flights and millions of connecting passengers with them.
At the time, forecasts were dire. Pittsburgh International Airport, once regarded as a treasure of the aviation industry — The New York Times called it the “airport of the future” — was firmly in decline.
A lot has changed since then.
In the last three years, the airport has added a slew of direct flights — Iceland, Montreal and Seattle to name a few — and announced a planned project to construct a sleek new $1 billion terminal.
And while there are many reasons for this bounce back, the piecemeal nature of the rebound — spread out over weeks, months and years — can mean it’s difficult to visualize. For that reason, we at The Incline compiled the following data through requests made to airport officials. The numbers reveal an airport on the rise again. They also reveal the fall that came first.
Late ’90s: 20 million
2013: 7.8 million
2016: 8.3 million
Before CEO Christina Cassotis came on board in 2015 with what spokespeople call “a specific mission to increase air service for our community,” the airport was floundering.
Spokesperson Alyson Walls explains: “Our airport was in a state of decline in terms of flights and passengers — going from a high of about 20 million passengers per year in the late 90s, to under 8 million in 2013. We also had several hundred flights per day when the airport was operated as a hub for U.S. Airways.”
PIT was built specifically for U.S. Airways in 1992. At one time, U.S. Airways was also the biggest employer in the region with as many as 12,000 employees. So the importance of the airline’s decision to exit more than 10 years later is impossible to overstate. Meanwhile, there were other adversarial factors at play.
“After the Sept. 11 attacks, bankruptcy, airline mergers and consolidation in the early 2000s our passenger traffic and number of nonstop flights declined dramatically,” Walls said. “But over the past three years, PIT has rebounded to become a successful origin-and-destination airport, meaning that most of our passengers start and end their trips here, rather than connecting through to another destination.”
Again, she credits new leadership with much of the turnaround.
Between 2013 and 2016, the number of passengers at PIT grew from 7,884,170 to 8,309,754. As of September of this year, 6,639,553 passengers had passed through PIT.
“Barring any major snowstorms or unforeseeable nation-wide events impacting air travel, we expect 2017 to eclipse 2016,” Walls said. That would mean five straight years of growth.
“We expect total passenger traffic will be up a minimum of 4-6 percent in 2017. That’s due to all the new flights and the Pittsburgh community’s positive response.”
A comparative chart is embedded below. The airport’s 24-page September 2017 traffic analysis is embedded below that.
Additionally, PIT enplaned 371,674 for the month of September 2017, a 9.6 percent decrease from the previous month but a 4.7 percent increase above September 2016.
Combined enplaned and deplaned traffic for September 2017 totaled 738,369 passengers, a 12.2 percent decrease from the previous month and a 4.2 percent increase above September 2016. Year to date, all scheduled carriers combined are up 7.1 percent. Year-to-date total airport passenger traffic is up 7.2 percent, according to the September report.
And while the airport is still nowhere near the peak levels it saw in the ’90s and early aughts, few are, especially those that have lost their hub status.
In 2014, PIT’s nonstop destinations reached their lowest number since the dehubbing by U.S. Airways, totaling just 37 that year. The number has grown to 68 today. (Walls said they only keep track of nonstop flights.)
“We have added all three low cost carriers (Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit), regional carriers like OneJet and Southern Airways Express that serve cities within a 500-mile radius of PIT, and new international carriers like Wow to Reykjavik and Condor to Frankfurt,” Walls added.
“These new flights mean that more people are flying and they’re responsible for more than 7 percent growth in total passengers that we’ve had through October of this year.”
September 2017 showed a 5.3 percent increase in aircraft landings by scheduled passenger carriers over September 2016.
In the past 3 years, PIT has lost a total of eight nonstop flights:
- West Palm Beach on Allegiant
- Los Angeles on American
- Freeport (Bahamas) on Vacation Express
- Toronto City Airport on Porter
- Las Vegas, Atlanta and Chicago on Frontier
- Houston on Spirit
Walls offers this caveat: “It is important to note that we still have service to these routes — Palm Beach on Southwest, Los Angeles on Spirit, Toronto on Air Canada and several carriers serve Las Vegas, Atlanta, Chicago and Houston. It is also important to note that starting and canceling service quickly for low cost carriers like Frontier and Allegiant is fairly typical as they are always experimenting and moving their aircraft around.”
She added that with the recent addition of nonstop flights to Seattle on Alaska Airlines, Pittsburgh International will have service on the top nine passengers airlines in the U.S.
“That’s ALL of them, with the exception of Sun Country,” Walls explained.
You can see a full list of nonstop flights here.
Walls said there are more nonstop flights being added and more that will be announced before the end of the year.
She cites a “pent up demand” for them in Pittsburgh as the airport and region have been “underserved for years since the dehubbing.”
There’s also demand driven by Pittsburgh’s continued economic recovery.
“Our city and region is experiencing a tech-fueled renaissance, and it’s our mission, through collaboration with regional partners like VisitPITTSBURGH, the Pittsburgh Technology Council and the Allegheny Conference, to reflect that here at the airport, and offer the air service that our region needs to continue growing and advancing,” Walls said.
“As our CEO says, we are in competition with airports around the world for air service. That’s why our team meets regularly with airlines to make sure they know that Pittsburgh is a growing market and to make the case for why they should place their aircraft here.”