When Christina Cassotis arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) in January 2015, the Midwestern airport was a lean and scrappy version of the once-bustling US Airways hub it used to be. With only 37 nonstop destinations on the airport's flight information boards, Cassotis was determined to make her mark.
Using a collaborative approach, the new Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO and airport team have nearly doubled the amount of cities PIT serves with nonstop service in just two years. The growing airport now boasts 67 nonstop routes in operation or planned to debut in 2017.
With its new strategy, the airport has seen gains that include Southwest Airlines adding service to Los Angeles International, Lambert-St. Louis International and Dallas Love Field; Allegiant Air expanding to nine markets; and OneJet expanding to seven. In addition, Southern Airways is filling nine markets with federal subsidy via the Essential Air Service program, and several new carriers have come on board: Frontier Airlines with five markets and Porter Airlines with service to Toronto City Airport.
Project: Air Service Development
Location: Pittsburgh Int'l Airport
Primary Objectives: Add new routes & carriers specifically tailored to local market; switch orientation from hub to O&D
Strategy: Research area's business & leisure travel needs; promote Pittsburgh's renaissance; leverage Essential Air Service Program; modify facilities to accommodate direct vs. connecting passengers
Results: Airport has expanded from 37 nonstop destinations to 67 in 2 years
Share-use Tech Platform: AirIT
Looking ahead, WOW air and Condor Airlines plan to start service to Reykjavik and Frankfurt, respectively, in June 2017.
Cassotis says the airport has won new routes, both big and small, by using a dedicated approach to serve the specific needs of the local marketplace. Recent successes include the addition of twice daily service to Harrisburg, PA, by Southern; the announcement of Condor's twice weekly seasonal service to Frankfurt, Germany; and the promise of desperately desired year-round transatlantic service via Reykjavik, Iceland, by WOW.
"Every single route is a really big win," she remarks, highlighting new service to Harrisburg on nine-seat regional jets as a prime example. The new in-state service is significant because it carries government officials and attorneys to and from the state capital. Previously, Pittsburgh was one of the largest cities in the country without air service to its state capital. "That was a big deal, and it mattered to a very, very important segment of our community," explains Cassotis.
New international flights by Condor and WOW are also noteworthy-especially year-round service by WOW into continental Europe.
To help identify the right markets to target, PIT performed a rigorous review of community needs for business and leisure travel. Cassotis and her team analyzed a wide variety of factors, including the ancestral heritage of area residents and previous travel patterns during the airport's hub days. They also investigated demand on a market-by-market basis, taking into consideration which routes made the most sense for each particular airline given its existing network, fleet strategies, aircraft orders and options.
"We have a good market that is growing, expanding and diversifying," Cassotis observes, noting the authority-wide effort to secure new service. "There is so much pent up demand that as new service comes in, it gets used. We go after that service strategically and proactively and consistently, and we do it in a very targeted fashion. When we are talking to certain airlines, we are talking to them very specifically about why we are a good fit."
The approach has proven successful, as evidenced by new service to Los Angeles International by Southwest, and OneJet adding flights to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and Bradley International in Hartford, CT, as well as service to Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Louisville, Albany and Richmond.
"The OneJet service is making a very big difference to a lot of our businesses here that are trying to get to other medium-sized markets like Louisville and Indianapolis and Milwaukee and Hartford," says Cassotis, noting that such routes have steadily increased since May 2015. "To be able to take a 45-minute direct flight instead of connecting actually makes a big difference in their ability to operate efficiently as a business."
PIT officials note that Southwest currently offers the most destinations from the airport, and American carries the most passengers. Cassotis describes Pittsburgh as a really solid origination and destination (O&D) market. "Nobody has the majority share; we are not looking to become a connecting hub again," she specifies. "We are looking to take care of the needs of the O&D demand for this region."
Jeffrey Hartz, senior air service consultant at Mead & Hunt, is impressed with PIT's strategies and results. Hartz says that throughout his 13-year tenure in air service development, he's never seen such high levels of involvement with small communities and the regional airlines that serve them.
Airport officials have focused on the specific transportation needs of Pittsburghers and Pennsylvanians in part by leveraging information from PIT Connector, a statewide study on the feasibility of connecting intrastate communities to Pittsburgh. The comprehensive research effort included detailed analysis, community meetings and discussions among key groups within Pennsylvania. The airport team complemented information gleaned from PIT Connector with follow-up Essential Air Service (EAS) studies in neighboring states.
Under airport leadership, the Mead & Hunt team has assisted PIT in establishing new EAS markets. The newest addition-service by Southern Airways to Morgantown Municipal in West Virginia-is scheduled to debut in December 2016. Southern also serves Harrisburg, PA, a non-EAS market.
"This Southern Airways service is important to the communities, and it is important to the state to re-tie in these communities," comments Hartz. "The efforts and expense that go into coordinating between the EAS communities, the carrier, and Pittsburgh is something that I have certainly never seen before."
Hartz tips his hat to the leadership at PIT for pursuing and acquiring Southern Airways service to Chautauqua County/Jamestown Airport in New York, Hagerstown Regional in Maryland, and small airports in six Pennsylvania cities: Lancaster, Altoona, Bradford, Franklin, DuBois and Johnstown.
"One of the unique things about this situation has been the authority's involvement and their coordination and communication efforts with the Essential Air Service communities themselves," says Hartz, noting that PIT holds quarterly meetings for all stakeholders to coordinate marketing efforts. "When there are issues, we work collectively together to resolve them.
"The great programs and great effort that PIT is putting forward show the importance they see in not only Pittsburgh, but the whole state of Pennsylvania and the whole region, to have better air service and better connectivity for those communities. It has been a great success."
Associated Facility Changes
To accommodate PIT's wide array of new domestic and international flights, the authority has modified facilities throughout the airport.
"Bathroom upgrades and that kind of stuff are what you do as an airport as you age, but we really have been focused on the changes that serve the O&D passenger," Cassotis explains. "There is a long list of things that we certainly have to get to, but rehabbing gates at the end of a terminal that aren't used is not going to be at the top of the list."
No longer a hub, PIT simply does not use all of its 75 gates,
A variety of changes were specifically designed to recalibrate the airport's flow for O&D rather than hub traffic. Previously, almost 90% of the international travelers passing through the Federal Inspection Station were connecting passengers who arrived airside, needed to re-clear security, and then went to other gates. The small amount of O&D passengers, on the other hand, were also required to re-clear TSA just to leave the airport, because they had to pass through the airside terminal.
That ratio flipped when the hub left. Most international arrivals are now people heading home to Pittsburgh, with no need to connect elsewhere.
"With the hub gone, we had to figure out a system by which we didn't have people coming off a flight from Cancun or Paris or the Dominican Republic lining up to take off their belt and shoes just to get to the parking garage," Cassotis relates. "We have a temporary solution that is working and does not require passengers who are headed into Pittsburgh or out of the airport to re-clear TSA."
The airport knocked down a few walls and instituted a new system that gets passengers to the landside terminal without entering any sterile areas that would require screening.
The airport also upgraded its baggage claim area in light of the new concentration of O&D passengers. "(Baggage Claim) was looking a little sorry and dingy," Cassotis acknowledges. "We re-carpeted and painted and took down half walls to give it a much more open and a 'you-have-arrived' feel."
A martini bar and Starbucks location near the baggage claim carousels perform very well with PIT's robust meeter and greeter population, she notes. However, the vast majority of concession purchases are made in the airport's center core.
The highest concentration and widest array of retail and food/beverage options are located in the center core, while lesser amounts of commercial activity occur at the ends of the concourses.
According to Cassotis, the airport authority is putting more emphasis on adding the right international brands and bringing in locally based companies, iconic Pittsburgh institutions and well-known products from the area.
The new approach is apparently resonating with customers. "We have a fantastic retail program," she reports, noting that PIT ranks in the Top 10 in per-passenger concession revenue among all U.S airports. "People shop here and they spend money. There is more to do on food and beverage, but retail is definitely strong."
PIT has also invested heavily in passenger processing systems to accommodate its influx of new carriers serving the O&D market. "We are definitely investing in technology," Cassotis reports, noting the need for more shared-use systems. "We have a long way to go there, but we are doing more and more shared-use gates, ticket counters, etc. so that we have flexibility with the carriers."
The airport uses AirIT's EASE(tm) platform to facilitate sharing of gate and ticket counter resources. The system supports PIT's air service development efforts, because it eliminates unnecessary costs for air carriers to enter the market, notes Chris Keller, company president and chief operating officer.
"What Pittsburgh has done is provide the infrastructure, so all the airlines have to do is bring aircraft and passengers," Keller explains. "Our virtualized application operates on Pittsburgh-provided servers, and the airlines operate and process passengers in their own native application. The airlines continue to operate just as they do if they were in their own hub airport."
Looking ahead, Cassotis reports that PIT is focusing on innovation. "This community, as a whole, has been incredibly entrepreneurial and innovative in its history," she explains, citing Westinghouse, Carnegie Mellon and a growing number of up-and-coming high-tech firms as examples. Google and Uber, for example, both have massive presences in the city.
"We want to make sure that innovation is reflected right when you get off the plane or as you come into the terminal from your car, an Uber or a taxi," she continues. "We are really focused on enabling digital and technological solutions, as well as the customer service needs of today and tomorrow. We want the space and our programs to reflect that."