NextBurgh, PA          @VannevarB      About      Pittsburgh Murals
October 30, 2008

Used To Be

Headline: PIT Airport to hit airlines with big increases in landing fees.
Per passenger costs will jump 48 percent, from $11.19 to $16.62, under the $88.9 million operating budget adopted today by the Allegheny County Airport Authority board.

Landing fees will increase from $2.49 to $3.36 per 1,000 pounds and terminal fees will jump from $110 to $149 per square foot. The biggest increase will be in ramp fees, which will go from $197.47 to $574.74 per linear foot.

Southwest doesn't like it. Airtran doesn't like it. Seems like it's a trend.

There used to be steel mills here. When the steel mills were closing, there were steel workers sitting outside the gates, telling each other "they'll never keep it shut down, boys". The steel mills never came back - there are some boutique operations but steel on the old scale is gone.

After the mills were closed, for a long time the Airport was the new Steel. 18 million people a year passed through the PIT airport, and remarkably few of them wanted to be in Pittsburgh - they were in Rochester NY and wanted to be in Richmond VA. The County and USAirways made that happen.

The County wanted to make sure it stayed that way. In the mid-1990's Southwest wanted to start flying in and out of the Allegheny Airport, south of downtown, just like they fly to secondary airports in other cities. An Airport's got to have a fire department to support airline operations. The County shut down the firefighting facility at Allegheny to ensure that nobody would threaten USAir's fortress hub. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

We spent a half-billion of the public's money on a new "airport", although really it was a just a new terminal and a highway. They told people it was a new airport, but it wasn't. Sort of like when they took federal money for a beltway system and delivered the color belts. But the new airport brought lots of jobs and patronage. The money flowed. The terminal was world-class.

The world changed. Airlines started making money not by flying passengers, but by filing bankruptcy and busting contracts. New airlines hired kids and didn't pay benefits or retirements. Established airlines (now called legacy airlines ) had those expenses, so they filed bankruptcy and then they didn't have to pay the benefits or retirements that they'd agreed to.

I'd like to think that in a nobler time, robber barons and Frank Lorenzo wannabees who abrogated the agreements they had signed would be shunned in decent society. Lately they get bonuses.

Sometimes the Airlines didn't overtly bust their union contracts, which set pay rates for 727s, 737s, 747s, etc. They just bought planes that didn't meet the terms of the contracts, and so now they fly RJ's, which the airlines call Regional Jets, and the pilots call Replacement Jets. Want to know why you're flying in a cramped 75-seat RJ with a higher CASM than a 737? Union busting, plain and simple.

Airlines realized they could do more than bust their union contracts. They could file bankruptcy (maybe more than once) and break their agreements with vendors, airports, counties. Long term lease for fifty gates? Gone.

Nobody in the know is giving the true story, but USAir and the County stared hard at each other, and USAir effectively walked away. Used to be there were 600 USAir departures a day; now there's 58.

The County took on massive long-term debt in order to build the terminal for USAir, and USAir cancelled the agreement. The County still owes the debt. They divide the bills by the dwindling number of passengers, and the fees climb faster than an RJ on an August afternoon.

The airport's conundrum, I imagine, is whether or not to play the airline's game. Does the airport continue playing by the old rules and pay its bills, or do the lawyers fill out the correct forms and default on the debt? The airport is flirting with some of the airline's bag of tricks - they're more in the real . estate . development business than the airport business, and they recently toyed with drilling wells on the airport property before that became too entangled in County politics and the bidders walked away.

In a world of insufficient runway capacity, the airport is sitting on a way-underutlized gem of a facility, with four runways capable of supporting more operations that PHL, LGA, EWR, or JFK. But until they figure out how to make the numbers work, nobody's going to use those runways.

Where's the bail out for the airport? If PIT was a hedge fund they'd be getting help. I keep hoping that the wind will change, and somebody's going to start using the airport in a big way that involves a lot of jobs. But I'm afraid I'm just like those guys sitting outside the steel mills, waiting to wait up from the bad dream.

Until something changes, PIT is a used-to-be airport in a used-to-be town. Used to have direct flights. Used to have steel mills. Used to have a baseball team. They should change the three-letter luggage-tag identifier from PIT to U2B.

I'm NOT being down on the airport or the Burgh - it's just that until the region gets past the DABDA loop, it's not going to get better.


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