Air Service Development Is Economic Development

Christina Cassotis

In the old days in the U.S., if your town had a railroad station, the town flourished. If not, your town struggled.

It may seem like times were simpler then. But the basic concept of transportation remains the same. Business and commerce depend on having access to transportation to move people and goods, which helps to fuel regional economies.

In many large cities across the United States, people take this access for granted. After all, if you live in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta or another large place, it’s likely you have robust air service, probably through at least one hub carrier.

As CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, Christina Cassotis has led a dramatic turnaround at Pittsburgh International Airport – a near doubling of nonstop destinations served, four years of record passenger traffic growth, and a recently announced Terminal Modernization Program.

During her tenure, Pittsburgh International was named Air Transport World’s 2017 Airport of the Year and Regional Airport of the Year by the CAPA Centre for Aviation. Cassotis also received the 2017 Excellence in Visionary Leadership Award from Airports Council International – North America, and was named 2017 Director of the Year for medium-size airports by Airport Revenue News.

But for the rest of us, particularly those of us in the U.S. Midwest whose hub carriers left, it’s not so simple. In Pittsburgh, the hub carrier left 15 years ago. The region saw 10,000 jobs disappear and businesses dependent on robust air service connections literally left town for better access.

Despite that loss, the Pittsburgh region continued the economic renaissance spurred a decade earlier by the collapse of the U.S. steel economy. The region created a strategy to diversify into several industries (instead of depending on just one) including technology, finance, energy, healthcare and advanced manufacturing.

Finally, over the past five years, the airport has caught up. We’ve nearly doubled nonstop destinations, recruited eight new carriers, increased our passengers and lowered our costs to airlines. The airport in Pittsburgh is no longer a drag on the economy but is helping to enable it. We have successfully transitioned from a former hub to a strong origin-and-destination market and feel we have the basic blueprint for other similar markets to follow. Air service development is economic development.

Regional businesses are noticing. In business, time is money; and no company wants to waste valuable staff time as people connect on flights.

Our airport contributes $29 billion annually in direct, indirect and induced economic benefits. The better we do, the better the economy does—and more people can watch their grandchildren’s soccer games instead of watching their children leave to find jobs elsewhere.

After I gave one of my first public talks as CEO of the airport more than four and a half years ago, a tech entrepreneur followed me to my car to tell me what air service meant to his business. He needed venture capital to grow the business and hire employees; but potential investors got stuck in a snowstorm in Chicago on a connecting flight from the West Coast. They told him they loved his business but would never attend a board meeting here because it was too difficult to get to. Enter our West Coast strategy that has increased those flights and helped to fuel Pittsburgh’s tech scene.

It’s why PPG, ATI and other Pittsburgh businesses sent high-ranking company officials on British Airways’ inaugural flight to PIT from London Heathrow in April. Their connections to the UK and Europe are plentiful, and that nonstop flight makes it easier for them to succeed and hire.

That’s why we’ve worked so closely with VisitPittsburgh, our convention and visitors bureau, and the Allegheny Conference, which oversees our Chamber of Commerce, and the Tech Council in recruiting new flights. Air service is not just people going on vacation—although that’s important, too, in Pittsburgh’s growing tourism industry. Air service facilitates families coming for college visits and businesses looking to expand. And the airport is the all-around front door for a region.

Our air service strategy works in tandem with real estate development, logistics and cargo development. All four work together to maximize the airport’s benefit to the community.

Our region and many across the Midwest know what happens when air service disappears, which is why we compete so vigorously around the world for flights. The stakes are too high to lose.

Airports are economic engines that none of us should take for granted. Bringing in a year-round, wide-body international flight is tantamount to bringing in a mid-size corporate headquarters in terms of economic stimulus to the market. Every flight–regional, domestic and international–adds to a community’s competitiveness.

Airports that leverage stakeholder relationships and take a seat at the table in their respective communities as leaders will help their regions flourish. We need more of that at U.S. airports. Our futures depend on it. 

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