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.