British Airways Rediscovers the ‘Burgh, 20 Years On

When nonstop service resumes in April, visitors will find a transformed, thriving city and region

By Jeff Martinelli

Published March 27, 2019

Read Time: 4 mins


“I was dreamin’ when I wrote this, so sue me if I go too fast
But life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last…” “1999” – Prince

The last year of the 20 th century wasn’t just a different time; it was a different world. Bill Clinton was president. NBC ruled the TV ratings with its powerful “Must See TV” Thursday lineup: “Friends,” “Frasier” and “ER.” Businesses obsessed about the Y2K computer glitch.

In Pittsburgh, things looked bleak. The Steelers had lost seven of their last eight games to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season. The Penguins needed Mario Lemieux to purchase the bankrupt franchise. The Pirates … well, they were the Pirates.

Although native Christina Aguilera topped the charts with “Genie in a Bottle,” it seemed as though the region would need a lot more than three wishes from a magical character to find a new identity following the collapse of the steel industry.

But Pittsburgh International Airport, with 18.7 million passengers and non-stop service to London via British Airways, was humming right along.

“I always enjoyed the (London) flights,” said Mark Prus, who worked locally for London-based GlaxoSmithKline. “The service was a great reminder of all things that were good about England. We could go right from the plane, take a car to GSK House, then work a full day.”

Then it ended. On Halloween 1999, British Airways ended the Pittsburgh-London Gatwick route it had been operating for 14 years due in part to selling its ownership stake in USAir and transitioning its partnership to American Airlines.

Planting seeds

On April 2, 2019, British Airways will once again offer nonstop service between Pittsburgh and London Heathrow. Visitors from London and Europe will find a modern, thriving region with a host of new players.

The seeds of change that led to the airline’s return were planted many years ago, even during Pittsburgh’s economic downturn.

Earlier in the 1990s, a combination of public-private developments that included tax increment financing had cleared the former sites of the Homestead, Duquesne and South Side steel mills for new retail, residential and office projects.

Around the same time, some of the region’s most-visited amenities opened their doors, including the Carnegie Science Center in 1991, the Andy Warhol Museum in 1994, the new PPG Aquarium at the Pittsburgh Zoo in 2000 and the first phase of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in 2003.

Ground was broken on PNC Park and Heinz Field and both opened in 2001, setting in motion a wave of riverfront cleanup projects and the development of recreational trails along the North Shore. Similar development featuring retail, restaurants and bike trails took place on the South Side.

“All of those establishments are reasons people visit this region,” VisitPITTSBURGH President and CEO Craig Davis said, noting that hotel properties in the region increased by 46 percent during the 1990s. Not ironically, the Business page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Oct. 31, 1999, carried a story about Western Pennsylvania drawing more tourists.

Since BA’s 1999 departure, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls, the Penguins have added three Stanley Cups and, yes, even the Pirates have improved. But visitors will see much more than stadiums and successful sports teams.

They’ll find that Uber, Facebook, Amazon and others have taken up residence in the region’s burgeoning tech scene and diversified economy.

They’ll find an airport that is truly becoming “international” again with nonstop flights to Europe, terminal improvements and a new focus on modernization.

They’ll find Zagat’s No. 1 food city, Travel + Leisure’s hippest neighborhood and National Geographic’s best place to visit.

For some longtime Pittsburghers, the return of BA will bring back fond memories.

“My very first red-eye was on British Airways from Pittsburgh to London in business class,” said Theresa Gallick, another former GlaxoSmithKline employee who now works at PIT. “Oh, how spoiled I was in those wonderful bed-like seats and attentive, friendly flight attendants. I was able to get off the flight rested and attentive and able to jump into a day’s worth of meetings at headquarters.”

Twenty years later, a whole new generation of business and leisure travelers have a chance for a similar experience.

In 1999, the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (now VisitPITTSBURGH) launched a campaign designed to raise visibility of the travel and tourism industry and its economic impact on the community. Today, Pittsburgh continues to impress as a growing international tourism destination.

With all those changes, “we have more to promote,” Davis said. “And the more we have to promote, the more people we will continue to attract.”

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