Following Pittsburgh’s Aviation Roller Coaster Ride Through Its London Flight

British Airways has decided to return to Pittsburgh starting April 2, 2019 with a four-times weekly flight to London’s Heathrow Airport on a 787. This flight alone seems like a natural extension of BA’s efforts to penetrate into mid-size US cities with its 787, but this isn’t the first time Pittsburgh has seen a London flight. There is a larger story to be told here. You can actually track Pittsburgh’s fortunes just by looking at the history of this London route over the years. While any city would cheer nonstop service to London, those with a long history living in the Pittsburgh area are likely more excited than most after witnessing all the city has gone through.

Let’s go back to May 13, 1986 when Pittsburgh first attracted British Airways… sort of. Pittsburgh was a steel town in decline, and the city’s population had been on the downswing since the 1950s. Yet BA was willing to give the city a shot, just not nonstop from London. BA simply extended its Washington flight up to Pittsburgh. That 194 mile flight was probably a low-cost way of trying to better utilize the airplane. That kind of “tag” service was fairly common back in those days, and I believe the stop alternated with other cities, including Philly, at various times.

But before British Airways arrived, Pittsburgh was a long-time air service hub. All American was founded in 1939 and was based in Pittsburgh. That airline became Allegheny and then USAir post-deregulation. Even though the headquarters had moved out to DC, Pittsburgh remained an important focus for the airline. In the 1980s, USAir went on a buying spree, acquiring both PSA and Piedmont. That Piedmont acquisition gave the airline its first widebody aircraft. USAir had big plans for continued growth, and Pittsburgh was a key part of that.

Between 1982 and 1992, total passengers at the airport doubled to nearly 19 million. The old airport terminal was bursting at the seams, and so in partnership with USAir, Pittsburgh embarked on an ambitious $1 billion new terminal project. That state-of-the-art facility with an “Air Mall” for people to shop at was scheduled to open late in 1992. That year would prove to be one of the most exciting for air travel in Pittsburgh.

In the summer of 1992, British Airways announced it would buy a stake in USAir for $750 million. Like most airlines, USAir had been losing money in the early 1990s thanks to high oil prices and recession. (The string of accidents didn’t help either.) It needed cash, and it wanted to grow internationally. British Airways drooled over the idea of gaining significant domestic US feed for its flights across the Pond, and so a deal was done. Not only would BA own nearly half the airline (though less than a quarter of voting shares thanks to ownership laws), but it would also give BA a quarter of the director spots on USAir’s board.

The integration went deep. USAir would relinquish its rights to land in London. Instead, it would actually dedicate 3 of its 767s inherited from Piedmont to fly for British Airways in British Airways colors. Even the crews, which were from USAir, would wear BA uniforms. When this went into effect in June 1993, British Airways converted the Pittsburgh flight to go nonstop to London/Gatwick. The city, with its sparkling new air terminal, now had a jewel in its crown with intercontinental flights.

It wasn’t long, however, before things started going downhill. The relationship didn’t go as planned, and British Airways eventually found greener pastures in cuddling up with American. USAir was angry, and it filed a lawsuit in 1996 to force BA to sell its stake. USAir said that BA had prevented it from achieving its own international goals, and it took an outsized portion of the revenue from customers the carriers transported together. Now, USAir not only wanted to end this relationship, but it also wanted its own rights to fly to London back.

By the end of the year, BA said it would sell its stake in USAir. The BA partnership was effectively dead by then, but BA didn’t give up on Pittsburgh. It kept flying the route to Gatwick until October 31, 1999 when it walked away after 14 years of service.

By then, USAir had become US Airways and it had begun to expand greatly into Europe. Pittsburgh was a hugely important hub with over 500 flights per day at its peak — the airport hit a high of 20.7 million passengers in 1997 — and US Airways wanted to fly to London. It fought hard and it finally started flying the route in July 2000. Pittsburgh was once again connected to London, albeit this time to Gatwick Airport.

Then, the .com bubble burst and 9/11 followed. Airlines found themselves in a foreign landscape, and US Airways was no exception. It was bleeding badly, and it had to shore up its finances or disappear completely. The cuts came in waves. By 2002, barely more than 18 million passengers used the airport and then things got ugly. The airport officially lost its hub status with US Airways in 2004. The London flight, which had become seasonal, was done that October. In 2005, only 10.5 million passengers used the airport.

What followed was something we’ve seen at former hub airports all throughout the US. With so little service remain, Pittsburgh’s costs skyrocketed. Service continued to suffer and gates were shuttered. A London flight was the least of Pittsburgh’s worries. It had to deal with the loss of domestic flights that it never thought it would lose. Things looked grim. Pittsburgh hit a low of 7.9 million in 2013.

Eventually, things did stabilize with traffic a shadow of its former self. Southwest moved in. Allegiant followed. So did Spirit, Frontier, and JetBlue. The city itself had also transformed from an old, declining steel town to a new generation hub for health services, education, and technology. Travel demand began to pick up, and the airport got aggressive. It wooed Delta to begin flying to Paris in 2009. Once the subsidies stopped in 2011, Delta decided to keep flying it during the summer on its own merits.

Pittsburgh’s outlook has strengthened and traffic rebounded to just shy of 9 million passengers in 2018. That may be the same number of passengers who used the airport in 1982, but back then, it was a hub. Many of those passengers were transiting. Now, these are people who are either starting or ending their journey in Pittsburgh.

The return of the British Airways service is a crowning achievement for the airport. Fifteen years ago, that BA flight was supported by travelers connecting in Pittsburgh from elsewhere. Today, BA thinks that its massive hub in London combined with the joint venture with US Airways’ successor, American Airlines, will be enough to support a flight. Pittsburgh has certainly come a long way to get to this point.

[Original photo via Rosedale7175/CC BY-SA 2.0]

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46 Responses to Following Pittsburgh’s Aviation Roller Coaster Ride Through Its London Flight

  1. A says:

    Fascinating history. Back when PIT was humming as a major hub so was CLE just a little over 100 miles away. One could argue CVG is also in the relative area and all were major hubs for airlines in the 80’s & 90’s. Clearly PIT has company in the region but cheers to their continued success, albeit different.

  2. kozmaterry says:

    This junk needs to stop. Paying airlines millions to fly to your airport. Why should flyers on other routes be forced to subsidize This foreign airline. If the annotations make it on their own-let it fail.

    Cities should not fall into this trap.

    • Alex Hill says:

      Well, in the case of the subsidies of AF/DL’s initial PIT-CDG service, it clearly worked: PIT subsidized the service to get it running and now, nine years after it started and seven years after the subsidies ended (using the dates Cranky provided), the service is still going.

    • Sean S. says:

      I would agree with this. Subsidizing routes is totally a vanity project and prestige factor for local politicos with minimal effective impact for travelers with the exception of a handful of corporate contracts.

      • Edward Tomlinson says:

        There is truth in what you say—but while it’s easy to blame “politicos” for this kind of thing, at least it isn’t guaranteed to be as utterly wasteful as, say, public funding of a giant sports arena or disgraceful giveaways to enormous corporations, both of which Mr & Mrs Average Voter apparently think are just swell.

      • Davey says:

        The theoretical reason is that good airline service is a critical factor in corporate location decisions. Pittsburgh and St. Louis, for example, both are large cities with mini-hubs, if you want to call them that, from Southwest Airlines. But neither has much in the way of international service, which puts them at a disadvantage to Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia or Washington DC’s Virginia suburbs. The government tries to step in to minimize the comparative disadvantage.

        The theory is that a non-stop to London makes you a business center. The fact is that nobody needs to subsidize a profitable route. Either the demand is there or it isn’t.

        • CF might have the exact figure, but often new international routes take a few years to mature and become profitable. So the demand isn’t always there, it can be stimulated.

          • CF says:

            Nick – There’s no set number, but international routes can definitely take longer to develop than domestic ones. You can’t easily pull off an Allegiant-style, “hey this has been selling for two weeks and it’s not full, so we’re out” kind of mentality.

          • Sean S. says:

            That’s true of just about any business decision. Airlines may have more substantial expenses up front than most, but they are not somehow unique amongst companies in that starting a new venture in a foreign country is not without risks. I would actually suggest that subsidies in these situations actually DELAY more routes because inevitably airlines will not move unless they can secure subsidies. It creates a race to the bottom where airports and cities are played against each other to dangle incentives in front of international carriers.

      • Simon says:

        Hmm. I’m in London and I’ve seen way more newspaper articles on “Why you should visit Pittsburgh now you can fly there direct” than I was expecting. So the tourism board is doing a great job of promoting the city too, and all of a sudden a lot of people will be thinking about going and spending money there who otherwise would have passed it by. And that brings a lot of revenue into lots of different businesses in the city, so – done carefully and sensibly – subsidizing is not a complete vanity project.

    • Chris says:

      While I agree to an extent, I’m more comfortable with this than the EAS program. EAS is an absolute political boondoggle. At least with local politicians, voters can hold them accountable for how the funds are spent.

      • Sean S. says:

        At least the EAS funds travel fornpeople in small towns that really couldn’t sustain air travel. There’s no reason why a major city would need to subsidize international travel for a handful of people versus actually getting people to a domestic hub such as EAS does.

    • Usually the “paying” part takes the form of a combination of:
      1. Waived landing fees.
      2. Marketing support.
      3. Guarantee to cover any potential losses.
      4. An agreement by local businesses to purchase a minimum amount of travel.

      Often when you look at these things, the waived landing fees usually take the bulk of the headline number. For the airline that is a direct reduction in costs, but for the airport that is forgone marginal revenue. One additional flight doesn’t cost the airport that much more, landing fees cover the bulk of fixed costs that airports have.

      The marketing support is often as Simon mentions below, for the whole city, and indirectly for the flight specifically.

      As for the loss guarantee and the purchase minimums, those are contingent, and I’d be curious how often they actually get paid out.

      • Kilroy says:

        I’m not a huge fan of the overall concept of subsidies to attract new service, but agreements from local businesses I can really get behind, and to a lesser extent the waived landing fees.

        If local businesses feel that there is a need for a flight or two for them that is unmet, great. They need to get together via the local chamber of commerce or whatever, lobby the airlines, and commit to buying a fair chunk of seats. If local businesses are unable or unwilling to do that, the desired flights may not be that viable for business travelers.

  3. Davey says:

    Pittsburgh died as a hub for a simple reason — US Airways/ US Air had two Pennsylvania hubs, one in Pittsburgh and one in Philadelphia. The two hubs were about 35 minutes flying time apart and its uneconomic for the same airline to serve both cities with large hubs.

    The list of dead secondary hubs in the East and Midwest is enormous. CIties and airlines spent billions in ill-fated efforts to attract and retain airline hubs they could never support. Cities like Dayton, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Nashville, Raleigh, Cleveland and Memphis all are just too close to larger cities with, in many cases, more dominant airline hubs, to be effective competitors. Most did not have or lost Fortune 1000 corporate headquarters.

    One has to ask how long Delta will retain both Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit as hubs. They’re awfully close together and with a comparatively large, new terminal in Detroit, does Delta need MSP?

    • Different scenario for DL. MSP and DTW are nearly 700 miles apart by land.

    • EC says:

      Let’s get Delta on the horn!!!

    • Jason Horner says:

      Minneapolis / St Paul is a LARGE city with scores of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the region that drive lots of demand for travel. Delta has repeatedly said that it’s a profitable hub for them. Why would they shut that down?

      • JB says:

        MSP is Delta’s second busiest hub, and I think second in revenue as well. Plus people actually fly to and from MSP. DTW is more of a connection airport. I always assume that DTW will be the one to shrink.

        • Jason Horner says:

          actually, no. Detroit generates a TON of traffic, due to the auto industry being there. and 5 million people in the cachment area too. Fares are high, there’s significant O/D, and Delta does very well there. It has every bit as much local traffic as MSP does, and at higher fares. Neither are going away as both are integral to Delta’s success and serve different markets that complement each other. Though the city of Detroit has had issues, the suburbs and the businesses that are there are booming and generate a ton of traffic that Delta isnt going to just walk away from and let others take.

        • Kilroy says:

          If you look at where Michigan’s population is, the vast majority of the state’s population (on the order of 8-9 million people) lives south of Saginaw Bay (where the “thumb” starts). With the exception of people at the extreme SW corner of the state (near Gary), DTW is the closest “big city” airport for most of the state’s population.

          Also, DTW is fairly west of the city of Detroit itself, reducing the “big city traffic factor” to get there, while those going from MI or northern IN have to drive past Chicago (and deal with traffic and tolls) to get to ORD

          I doubt it’s a huge number of travelers, but I’d be curious to know how many Canadians drive across the bridge to fly out of DTW.

      • Chris says:

        Anyone who has ever paid the exorbitant airfares to fly out of MSP can attest to how profitable it must be for DAL. It’s the definition of a fortress hub and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

        • JB says:

          @Chris @Jason I think you’re both right. I’m MSP based. I think that both MSP and DTW will probably be around for a long time for DL. They both were strong for NW, and continue to be so for DL. I agree, the fares DL can command out of MSP are crazy expensive! Sun Country has pissed off most of its customers here with their changes, I can see DL continuing to keep their prices where they are, people are paying it.

      • A says:

        Detroit is also a LARGE city with lots of business. For all the bad publicity about Detroit proper the region is a behemoth with plenty of O/D traffic. Yes, it’s close to Chicago and their bigger hub but DTW is still a legacy hub on it’s own merits that places like PIT, CVG, or CLE couldn’t match.

    • Sam says:

      Two other key factors in the “Crescent of dead hubs” (TM) that stretches from MCI to PIT are aircraft range & fuel economy. Being able to fly transcon on narrow bodies & half way across the country on regional jets really eliminated the economic purpose a lot of those hubs were serving.

      You can connect someone from Grand Rapids to Daytona Beach on two RJs through ATL or CLT now when before it probably would’ve been something like GRR-PIT-MIA-DAB flown by prop-727-prop. Same with mid-size coast-to-coast markets like BOS to PDX that couldn’t support a wide-body on their own. Multiple daily non-stop 737s and A320s nowadays when that would’ve been prime for a mid-west connection in the 80’s and 90’s.

      • Kilroy says:

        When I see references to pre-1990s airline routes, one thing that always strikes me is the number of stops that planes made back in the day, even on jets that had the range to fly halfway across the US (707s, 727s, etc).

        Traveling from Miami to NYC or LA to Chicago might involve 3-5 stops, even without changing planes, which would be unthinkable today.

      • Davey says:

        This is a stunningly accurate assessment of the airline industry today and, to some degree why I wonder about MSP and DTW. The fact is that in the 1990s, the DC-9 that was still commonly used had an effective range of 1,000 to about 1,500 miles depending on the model. The long-range planes at the time were either wide-bodies or to a lesser degree, the 727s and the MD-80s.

        The game changer for the US Airine market was the introduction of the 700 to 900 series of the 737 and the A-320 family. At that point, any airline with these planes had an economical way to fly Green Bay to Chicago or, more recently with ETOPs 737s, West Coast to Hawaii. Technology allowed an airline to fly a narrow body just about anywhere.

        Kilroy’s comments below referred to a pre-deregulated environment in which the airline route structure was built for small prop planes with limited range. By the 1970s, for sure, aviation technology outgrew the regulatory structure and required deregulation to effectively stop a Nashville to St. Louis run from stopping in three cities on a 350 mile trip.

  4. Even though I don’t live there anymore, I’m so exited for this. PIT has been waiting for this to come back for a long time. Although I’m interested to see how they will support 4 nonstops to Europe.

  5. Kevin says:

    Hi Brett, thanks for the post on this topic. TWA started Pittsburgh-London nonstops May 18, 1981 3x/week to Gatwick using an L-1011. The service was initially planned as 2x/daily, then 10/week, then daily, but started as 3x/week. It didn’t last long; after the PATCO strike in August, the service was discontinued.

  6. Carter says:

    As a resident who witnessed the zenith and decline of traffic at PIT, I hope this goes well and the airport continues to grow. I miss seeing commercial widebodies parked at the gates.

  7. Tim Dunn says:

    There are plenty of medium sized cities like PIT that have transatlantic potential and some of the Iceland based carriers as well as Delta have been trying to unlock that potential via their hubs including with their joint venture partners. BA has been doing the same via LHR with new service to AUS and BNA; however, LHR is at capacity which means that any new additions of transatlantic service come at the expense of intra-Europe or other longhaul flights while other hubs in Europe have growth potential. BA has to play the game of expanding its presence in mid-sized US cities or lose share. So far, UA and its partners are not following that model.

    There likely isn’t much more benefit to AA/BA from adding 4 times/week service than to DL/AF to operate summer seasonal service. LHR is a larger market than any other transatlantic destination but other cities including AF at CDG offer larger connecting banks because of greater airport capacity. If anything, fares during the winter season will fall significantly and make operating incremental service to medium cities less viable, esp. as long as there is a low cost transatlantic carrier in the market. By using 787s, BA cannot park aircraft for parts of the year without losing money on their investment. DL’s 767s and FI’s 757s have very low ownership costs which allow parking them for several months of the year

    Subsidies from US and Europe airports are typically raised by business groups and the promotional part of airport budgets but there are fairly strict rules about using operational fees which are paid by other airlines for promoting new service. Every airport has a certain amount of promotional budget they can use and attracting new service is part of the way that money is used.

    Adding international service is something every city wants and promotes. PIT might have reached the limit of its abililty to support more international service but having 3 plus longhaul international flights/day for a non-hub medium sized city is an accomplishment that says more about western PA’s abililty to support air service than it does about any one of the specific routes or carriers involved.

  8. JayB says:

    Great post! OK, PIT, now only 150 to 200 more US airliner cities to write up plus, don’t forget the 115 or so EAS-only communities. Wrap ’em all up and, what a wonderful book!

  9. Jamie says:

    When you said, “Pittsburgh was once again connected to London, albeit this time to Gatwick Airport.” DId you mean LHR? Don’t remember US Airways ever flying into Gatwick. May be wrong though.
    Super interesting article.

    • CF says:

      Jamie – No, it was Gatwick. US Airways, like most other US airlines, couldn’t fly to Heathrow until open skies was signed in 2007. I think US Airways started Heathrow in 2008.

      • Jamie says:

        Thanks for correcting me. May wanna change the phrasing slightly in the post then. The albeit makes it seem like it was previously connected to Heathrow.

  10. marek says:

    “I believe the stop alternated with other cities, including Philly, at various times.” I don’t know if it alternated, but LHR-PHL-PIT certainly operated – I flew the LHR-PHL leg probably in in 1989 or 1990, but have no idea how many people went all the way to PIT, as I was not among them. My recollection is that the route via PHL was stable for a number of years before eventually being truncated, and may have lasted longer than any earlier routing through Washington.

    • Kevin says:

      Yes, over the years, the BA LHR service was one-stop via Washington-IAD, Philadelphia and even Montreal.

  11. Doug says:

    Hey CF, would you mind doing one of these (if you haven’t already) on STL? It’s a similar story I’m sure. In addition to that, with the new airline being started by the Jet Blue founder, do you think a city like STL has any shot of being a focus city in the future? I love the idea of STL being utilized with an airline using the CS300. That type of a “hub” or focus city with a smaller but more efficient aircraft kinda makes sense to me (which of course means it will never happen). Could we see a resurgence in new airlines at some of these vacant but medium sized cities with CS100/CS300 making more economic sense?

    • CF says:

      Doug – I don’t think there’s a long enough story to warrant a post. TWA made St Louis a big domestic hub and in the mid-1980s it had enough heft to add a London flight. That went until near the bitter end. I don’t recall if TWA killed it in its death throes or if American killed it after the acquisition. As for an A220-based hub, I wouldn’t count on it. Southwest serves the big markets well, and others do their hubs. The low cost guys may find more routes that work with their models, but St Louis isn’t likely to be high on anyone’s list of new focus cities.

      • Greg M says:

        The STL-LGW route survived TWA for at least until the end of 2002, as I flew it on 12/27/02. (I flew ORD-STL-LGW as I needed the extra few hundred miles to maintain status for 2003.)

  12. fitzfitz says:

    … this is really good news as the city rebounds … incoming investment requires a non stop connexion to Europe and LHR is such a global hub … to LHR and beyond …

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