Swing for the Fences

Pittsburgh International’s air service strategy, including airline incentives, is all about scoring for the region’s economy

By Alyson Walls

Published December 5, 2018

Read Time: 3 mins


When you swing for the fences, “you strike out sometimes. But if you don’t swing, you’re not going to hit anything.”

That’s what Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a Wednesday story about recent airport setbacks.

So yes, Pittsburgh International Airport leadership is hitting for the fences — including using incentives to make PIT more attractive to airlines. Standing pat is not an option: the stakes are high, the competition is global and the opportunity cost of not constantly positioning the airport in the global market for air service is immense.

Boyd said he likes the airport’s aggressiveness and creativity in recruiting airlines — a strategy that CEO Christina Cassotis called essential in an industry constantly in flux.

“If we don’t get out there and prove this airport and market, we could lose it forever and that could mean slow or no economic growth,” Cassotis said. “We are not counting airline tails, we are counting trade routes — and each new route has millions of dollars in direct economic benefit to this region.”

The airport and the region still suffer from an old, incorrect perception that the area is not economically viable. To change that perception, the airport has to show that the market is as strong and resilient as any in the world. After all, airlines have movable assets and they will move them immediately if they find more attractive routes somewhere else.

Referencing recent route changes by Frontier, uncertainty around WOW air flights to Reykjavik, Qatar’s cargo flight and cancellation of service by OneJet, William Swelbar, chief industry strategist for Richmond, Va.-based Delta Airport Consultants, also noted in the article that although Pittsburgh is going through some typical marketplace corrections, it has also achieved notable successes over the past three years.

For those keeping score, the airport has increased nonstop destinations from 37 to 65, landed British Airways service to London (starting April 2), started nonstop service to Seattle and launched a seasonal flight to Frankfurt — among other successes — by using financial incentives.

Additionally, the airport has experienced 30 consecutive months of growth in passenger traffic and seat capacity, and will likely surpass 9.6 million passengers by the end of 2018.

Airline incentives are key, Cassotis said, because they demonstrate the airport and community’s commitment to the airline for its multi-million dollar investment of a nonstop flight. But they are never the airline’s sole reason for starting new service.

“Nobody ever shows up because you give them an incentive,” she added. “It’s because you demonstrate that you understand how their airline works, how your market fits into their network and how you are going to help them be successful, and we have done that.”

Like any good scout looking for fresh talent, the Air Service Development team is outlining a five-year air service development strategy that will identify additional nonstop routes and carriers to serve Pittsburgh.

“Sustaining and growing what we have is always job number one,” Cassotis said. “We’ve got our eye on the future. We don’t get to sit back and say, ‘now we’re set.’ It doesn’t work that way for reasons such as Frontier and WOW.”

There always will be adjustments in the market, she added, but overall Pittsburgh is growing, and more opportunities remain to be tapped.

That’s why with exactly 117 days until the Pirates home opener, there’s no offseason in recruiting airlines.

“No airline exec is looking at the world from Pittsburgh’s perspective; they’re looking at it from their network’s perspective,” Cassotis said. “So we get shuffled around sometimes. But at the end of the day, we’re still on a positive growth trajectory. We have more seats, flights and passengers because we’re succeeding.”

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