Across the Aisle from Pittsburgh Airport’s Executive Director on Pittsburgh’s Rise and Fall as a Hub (Part 1)

I recently had a fantastic opportunity to talk by phone with Brad Penrod, Executive Director/CEO, Allegheny County Airport Authority. Yep, that’s the authority that oversees Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) one of the first mid-size cities to lose its hub when US Airways walked away nearly a decade ago. Brad has been with PIT since the early 1980s. That means he’s seen seen it all throughout his career, and he was there the day Pittsburgh opened its massive new 100 gate terminal in 1992. It was the first in the US to really try the mall-in-an-airport concept, and it worked well. But the hub only lasted for another decade. Now it is operating with half the number of gates it opened with.

In part 1, we’ll dive into the rise and fall of the hub. Then on Thursday, you’ll learn about how the airport fought to improve air service options after the fall. For those who live in cities like Cincinnati and Memphis, this could be your future, if your local airport authority handles things well.

planeline

Cranky: If you could just start with giving me a little bit of your background that would be great.

Brad: I actually started here as a college intern while I was going to Across the Aisle from Pittsburgh International AirportEmbry Riddle. Went back to school and at the time the ops section here was reorganizing. They asked if I wanted a job and I said, “Ok.” And I’ve been here ever since then. That was 1982.

Cranky: So you’ve seen everything.

Brad: We’ve been through some neat and interesting times. I think the [current midfield terminal] building as we approach 20 years in October has aged a lot better than I have.

planeline

Cranky: When you came on, Pittsburgh was up and coming. British Airways started in ’85 or ’86 with Transatlantic service and USAir kept growing. When was the decision made to say “we need to build this big new terminal”?

Brad: We started that discussion in the early ’80s. As deregulation happened, USAir starts to get bigger and they acquired several airlines. At the time, USAir is probably one of the fastest growing, most profitable in the business. Our old 1952 terminal building was running out of room. They needed substantially more. Because of airfield and highway constraints and the obvious taxi times and fuel cost savings with a midfield complex, USAir and the county said “here’s what we’re gonna do.” I think June 1987 was when the lease was signed and ground was broken for an opening in October 1, 1992.

Cranky: You’re sitting here with USAir and they’re involved in the whole thing of course. I’m sure there were disagreements but this isn’t the airport saying “we need this” and the airline saying “No we don’t.”

Brad: I wasn’t involved in those discussions but understand too that the agreement to build the building would not have happened without USAir signing the agreement. Whether it was financing or finishes, a construction billing was not issued to contractors without a USAir signature on it.

planeline

Cranky: In 1992 it opens, and everything is great. USAir is still growing, so when are the first ripples of problems coming up from USAir?

Brad: I think it was really post 9/11 like a lot of other peers. Bankruptcy allows companies to do different things. And then bankruptcy #2 came and they did things they were allowed to do under bankruptcy law for the betterment of the company, and so we got through that and got beyond it. It was really post 9/11 in bankruptcy.

Cranky: So there wasn’t really any sort of rumbling before that at all? It was just “we’re still here, we’re still happy, and everything is good.” It was only when they had the bankruptcy option in front of them that they said ok, we’re going to make changes.

Brad: Right. Literally the Friday afternoon before bankruptcy #1, I was on a call with their facilities folks about adding additional building space. That Sunday evening filing was a little bit of a surprise.

planeline

Cranky: What happens in bankruptcy #1?

Brad: They were gonna reject leases. At the time they were operating off of, call it 54 gates, because they had all of the A Rise and Fall of the Pittsburgh Huband B concourses and a couple gates on C. And 25 express doors. Uncertainty was the big thing. We worked with them through that process. They approved some of the maintenance hangars and … they assumed 10 gates of the 54. They operated for a couple different years and couple different ways on a couple additional non-signatory gates. They worked that way until bankruptcy #2. But they held true to the 10 signatory gates they have to this day. [Ed Note: Signatory carriers are responsible for the financial success of the airport and have sway on what does and doesn’t get done at the airport.]

planeline

Cranky: The express gates are gone, right?

Brad: Most of that building is still here. We actually turned it into an alternate checkpoint. As the hub went away and low cost carriers came in, the local origin & destination traffic has obviously increasd. With that said, we had to build additional checkpoints to meet that demand from the low cost carriers.

Cranky: When did the express gates go away?

Brad: I think it was November 2004. That’s the benchmark date as far as the hub officially being de-hubbed.

Cranky: And then bankruptcy #2 comes out it’s not US Airways. It’s America West with a new name. When that happens, what is the approach when Doug Parker and company come to you. How are you dealing with that?

Brad: They make business decisions they make. We’re used to a hub environment with 104 cities nonstop. There’s some adjustment from what we do as a hub vs what we do as a strong origin & destination market. Everybody understands what it takes to run a hub. In a non-hub environment we had to change gears at 100 mph. From an airfield perspective we were fortunate and blessed with an outstanding airport infrastructure. It’s the same quality but you just don’t need the same quantity. In bankruptcy, US Airways had rejected the maintenance functions for loading bridges and bag belts and flight information display screens (FIDS). So we stood up a section of our organization to take over maintenance not only for US Airways but for everybody else. We kind of set the standard and learned a lot of how airline functions take place.

planeline

Cranky: At the time this is happening, you’re losing a crazy amount of service, meaning you’re losing a lot of revenue. You have to assume a lot of these formerly-airline provided functions which means your costs are going up as well as the debt that needs to be serviced. How are you working with that and saying to other airlines, “Hey we need low cost service but our costs aren’t that low”?

Brad: When US Airways said “we’re gonna dehub Pittsburgh,” it was a $6 cost per enplanement (CPE). The other airlines saw what was taking place. There was a significant effort to recruit low cost carriers. The first was AirTran, then Southwest, then JetBlue. They all came to town understanding the detail of the residual use and lease agreement [Ed Note: This means that the airlines collectively pay the costs of operating after all other airport revenues have been used to offset the total costs]. They saw a business opportunity and a very strong local and regional economy.

Cranky: Where did your costs go on a CPE basis? How did they go from $6 over the years?

Brad: Today we are at $13.80. That’s an average. There are carriers in the building today that have a CPE of about $8.

Cranky: And that’s not an introductory incentive?

Brad: No. We do have incentive programs for new routes and overnight parking, etc. But no, even with US Airways downsizing and our CPE going up, we’ve had the big three low cost carriers enter the market and I think they’re performing well. At least, I have not been told otherwise.

planeline

And that’s it for Part 1. Come back on Thursday and we’ll talk about how PIT rose again.

(Visited 167 times, 1 visits today)

Get Posts via Email When They Go Live or in a Weekly Digest

Leave a Reply

36 Comments on "Across the Aisle from Pittsburgh Airport’s Executive Director on Pittsburgh’s Rise and Fall as a Hub (Part 1)"

avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
David SF eastbay
Member

PIT is a good example of the phase ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’. An airport with one giant carrier may be riding high with that carrier, but one little thing happens in the airline industry and they can loose their ‘eggs’. An airport with about equal service between a few carriers or one airport like ORD with a large operation by AA and UA, can fair better if something happens to one carrier.

LAFlyer
Guest
While that would certainly be the ideal, I think that to a large extend, it’s outside of an airport’s control. You only see that kind of diversification at large mid-continent cities (ORD because Chicago’s a premium destination, and DEN, well that was kind of a fluke), and premium coastal markets (NYC, BOS, DCA, and LAX being the poster-child of diversification). Otherwise, a lot of the big-but-not-huge city airports are fortress dominated by one airline: DFW, IAH, HOU, MSP, DTW, ATL, MIA, CLT, PHL, BWI, IAD, with a bunch of others STL, CVG, MEM, PIT transitioning from having been fortress hubs… Read more »
LAFlyer
Guest

*fortresses

J Gorham
Guest

We’ll see how the “all eggs in one basket” fors for whatever comes out of AA and MIA.

But, with few exceptions, hub or no, it seems that airports end up with one dominant carrier (United at IAD, for instance, USAirways at RIC) and the airports either go up or down with the fortunes of that carrier. If the airport is big enough, or is located in the right geographical area, it’s ok. Otherwise, you get what’s happening at Pittsburgh to some other once-thriving hubs (St. Louis? Memphis?)

Todd
Guest

MIA is not a true domestic hub; it’s a hub for North American connections to Latin America. Because of its physical location (and cultural ties to the region), it’s always going to be a major player in the US to Latin America (and the Caribbean) market. Whatever happens to AA, MIA will still have lots of service to Latin America.

Michael
Guest

I remember as a teen going from MKE-PIT-SRQ and TPA on different occasions It was a great airport to connect to other USAirways flights. It is spacious and was very easy to get through the concourses. Then it had an awesome mall to kill time between flights. I miss making my connections there!

Nick Barnard
Member
I remember it being a great airport.. I always enjoyed connecting via PIT. I remember one time in 1993, we had flown from DAY to PIT as a major snowstorm in the northeast was starting up. We were late on that flight and dashed to our gate to find that our PIT to SAN plane wasn’t there.. Because it hadn’t arrived. We waited four hours or so for it to arrive, then got on it, and we got out. One of the bumpiest takeoffs and climbs I remember.. I enjoyed the new 757-200 on that flight. US Air’s 757’s had… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

I’m also pretty sure that wasn’t the US Air flight where the flight attendant brought me up into the cockpit midflight.. She was summarily scolded by the pilots and that visit didn’t last long..

CRB
Guest

PIT was a great hub to connect in back in the 1990s. It was a quick hop for me from DCA/BWI and then I was able to connect to pretty much anywhere I wanted to go. The last time I went through PIT in the heyday was 2001 and then not again until 2007. It was shocking to experience the ghost town feel after the hustle of the hub operation six years earlier.

davidp627
Member

It is a chicken and egg argument to some extant. I am of the camp that you will rarely, if ever, see a LARGE market airport suffer the fate of PIT, STL, MEM, etc. The void would just naturally be picked up by another carrier since those markets are so lucrative. It is not a matter of “putting all of your eggs” in one basket, but rather being a basket worthy of having eggs being put into it.

Nick Barnard
Member

But the stated reason that US Airways moved more of their operations from PIT to PHL was because PHL is a better O&D market to sustain a hub. PIT has O&D, but not as much as PHL.

PHL on the other hand.. ugh, nowhere near as nice a terminal.. At least the last time I was there 13 years ago.. (I think..)

davidp627
Member

My point exactly…PHL is a much larger market (6th largest in the U.S.).

Vinay
Guest

I think that the real “elephant in the room” was sidestepped to a degree; you didn’t ask him point blank about why they refused to lower fees when US Air threatened to de-hub

Ian
Guest

Hey Cranky, great interview so far! Would you please give your readers some perspective in reference to CPE (Cost Per Enplanements). By that I mean Brad says their average CPE is $13.80 but what is that number compared to other airports? For instance, how does Pittsburgh compare with Miami (which historically has a very high CPE) or another airport which might have a low CPE. Thanks!

Ian

Bill from DC
Guest

PIT is (was?) probably the best designed and most convenient connecting hub airport in the country. Shame it is no longer utilized that way but that became inevitable due to industry consolidation, the amazing lenience of bankruptcy protection (multiple times in the case of the former US) and the comparatively small O&D market of PIT. Same story, different chapter at STL and is now ongoing at MEM and CVG.

tharanga
Guest

I have to emphasize what some others are saying – when PIT’s new terminal opened, it was absolutely revolutionary, and a joy to connect in – very efficient, and pleasant. PIT redefined what an airport could look like inside – people may forget how miserable the food and shopping options used to be in US domestic terminals.

I protest at this being ‘across the aisle’. it should be ‘yakking on the phone’

Jeff S
Guest
SMF is $25+ CPE (today) with that new $1b terminal and $800k red rabbit, plus a nice monorail that travels a few hundred feet to baggage claim. Ha. Airlines wont be adding any service than what is in place now and even that is at risk for capacity reductions above what is being cut around the country. Too costly and not needed. Of course, PIT has to bear the cost of the infrastructure they have with no airlines to cover it… not their fault, but it is what it is. I think they’ve managed quite well getting down to $13… Read more »
Steve
Guest

I really, really miss the PIT hub. It was US’s best hub, because of the people. PIT is one of the country’s friendliest cities, and it was reflected in the people of US at PIT. The airport was awesome to connect through, with plenty to do, nice clubs, good food options, and plenty of flights to everywhere. Those were the days.

yo
Guest

Anything about the sham airline Ed Beauvais tried to start out of PIT? Northern Airlines IIRC?

stuartborden
Member

Brett, you wrote: “Brad has been with PIT since the early 1980s.” Does that make him a movie star like Brad Pit(t)? Sorry about that groaner.

trackback

[…] Penrod, Executive Director/CEO, Allegheny County Airport Authority. On Tuesday, we talked about the rise and fall of the US Airways hub in Pittsburgh. Today, we get into the aftermath, and how Pittsburgh dealt with the […]