So prodigious was the traffic at Pittsburgh International Airport at one point that Cyril Wecht joked that you could probably get a flight to Squirrel Hill. and the former Allegheny County commissioner and nationally known forensic pathologist wasn’t that far off.
Twenty years ago, in August 2001, Pittsburghers could fly nonstop to more than 110 destinations — from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Paris. There were seven flights a day to Latrobe, for goodness’ sake, and four to Youngstown, Ohio.
One day changed all that.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks threw the airport into a tailspin from which it is still recovering. The hijackings of four commercial jets to attack high-profile targets exacerbated the struggles of Pittsburgh International’s dominant airline, US Airways, prompting the first of two bankruptcy filings 11 months later.
In the years that followed, the region lost more than 10,000 US Airways jobs. The airport saw hundreds of daily flights and its status as a US Airways hub vanish, as the airline shifted its focus to Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C.
Even US Airways itself is gone. The airline that got its start in Pittsburgh now is part of American Airlines.
No one could have envisioned such a scenario. August 2001 was the best month in the airport’s history, with 2 million passengers — nearly all of them hauled by US Airways — using the midfield terminal, built to the airline’s specifications.
In fact, the airport was poised to have its best year ever, with a chance to break the record 20.7 million passenger total set in 1997.
Jim Roddey, the former county executive who was at the helm on 9/11, still has trouble grasping the magnitude of the collapse.
“I don’t think anybody saw it coming,” he said.
The US Airways hit
For the airport, the impact of 9/11 extended far beyond the measures put in place after the attacks and the creation of a new national force — the U.S. Transportation Security Administration — to screen travelers.
It altered the very fabric of the region.
“There was not a household in our community that wasn’t affected by the US Airways bankruptcies and the reduction from 12,500 employees down to what they have now or even back in 2005,” said Kent George, former executive director of the county airport authority.
Before 9/11, Pittsburgh International was US Airways’ largest hub. In August 2001, it averaged 633 daily flights. There were nonstops to three European destinations — Paris, London and Frankfurt, Germany.
There were five flights a day each to Los Angeles and San Francisco, four to Seattle, and three to San Diego.
And while there weren’t any to Squirrel Hill, there were six a day to Harrisburg, seven to State College, and five to Huntington, W.Va.
These days, the airport doesn’t come close to such numbers. In 2019, before the pandemic, there were about 65 nonstop destinations from Pittsburgh, a number of them seasonal.
There’s currently no service to San Diego, a seasonal flight to San Francisco, and two flights a week to Los Angeles.
“Pittsburgh took a huge hit.” said Darryl Jenkins, chairman and executive director of the American Aviation Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank for commercial aviation.
Grounding every plane
In the panic immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, every plane in America was grounded.
The Federal Aviation Administration evacuated the control tower at Pittsburgh International after a hijacked United Airlines’ Flight 93 flew into local airspace. It crashed in Somerset County after its passengers heroically tried to take back the plane.
At that point, the focus was on the moment, not the future.
“Everybody was very concerned. We didn’t know if anything was going to happen again. We weren’t getting a lot of information from Washington except that they weren’t going to start flying again until they were sure everything was safe,” Mr. George said.
The first handful of planes didn’t take off again from Pittsburgh International until Sept. 13. It would take months before the system returned to levels approaching near normal — and longer before skittish travelers felt comfortable flying again.
But the fallout was just starting.
The terrorist attacks exacerbated the struggles many legacy carriers faced before Sept. 11, chief among them US Airways, experts said.
Those challenges included labor costs and competition from low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines.
“9/11 was the event that really exposed the industry’s fragility and the fact that something had to be done. The cost structures were running high and revenues were dropping,” said William Swelbar, chief industry analyst at the Swelbar-Zhong consultancy in Virginia.
It didn’t take long for US Airways to react to the turbulence. A week after 9/11, the airline announced that it planned to slash 11,000 of 46,000 jobs system-wide and cut flying by 23% in response to the attacks.
In filing for its first bankruptcy 11 months later, the carrier blamed 9/11, stating it suffered more than other airlines when many travelers decided to drive or take the train rather than fly to short-haul markets along the East Coast, its bread and butter.
David Castelveter, US Airways’ chief spokesman for years, said the airline also was hurt by the grounding of all planes for weeks after 9/11 at Washington, D.C.’s, Reagan National Airport. US Airways was the largest carrier there.
“Airplanes make money when they’re flying. You lose money when airplanes are on the ground. We weren’t generating money, and we had bills to pay,” he said.
While 9/11 itself may not have caused the US Airways bankruptcy, it pushed the airline over the brink, as Mr. George put it. Experts agreed.
“US Airways really had nowhere to go,” Mr. Swelbar said. “Its balance sheet was a mess, and the only way you could address that was through bankruptcy.”
“The truth is, it was a dog with fleas,” added Mr. Jenkins. “9/11 kind of moved up the timetable on everything. But they were a candidate for a long time for bankruptcy.”
Just before emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2003, US Airways had a surprise for airport and county officials: Without any notice, it canceled its leases at Pittsburgh International.
Mr. George still gets angry talking about that decision, calling it “completely immoral and unethical.”
“The way they treated our community, the way they rejected the leases 15 minutes before [emerging from bankruptcy] without a call or notice, you can’t convince me in any way, shape or form they didn’t know what they were doing,” he said.
Mr. Castelveter said the decision was strictly business. Then-US Airways CEO David Siegel “felt negotiations would lead to nothing, and the clock was ticking,” he said.
“They made it solely on business calculations. Whether you call it unethical or not depends on what side of the business ledger you were sitting on.”
By the time US Airways filed for bankruptcy a second time, in September 2004, it had already eliminated 5,000 local jobs, down from 12,700 two years earlier, and cut about 300 daily flights.
Two months later, it officially shut down the Pittsburgh hub, prompting the closing of the airport’s commuter terminal. By then, the number of daily US Airways flights was down to 229.
To most experts, the loss of the hub was no surprise.
The airport was a victim of the turbulence that followed 9/11, Mr. Swelbar said. Small, mid-continental hubs struggled to compete as airlines looked to slash costs and compete against low-cost carriers.
“[9/11] just so exposed the economics of the business,” Mr. Swelbar said. “[The airport] was a victim of the times and the structural changes taking place in the industry.”
Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant, described the Pittsburgh hub as a “geographic accident,” one that existed only because Allegheny Airlines, the forerunner of US Airways, got its start here.
Mr. Castelveter, who began in the industry as a baggage handler in 1977, said he was as saddened as anyone to see the hub go.
But as industry dynamics changed, Pittsburgh just didn’t have enough origin and destination traffic — that is, local travelers — to support a hub.
“The studies that were done did not show economic growth in Pittsburgh. Businesses were not growing in Pittsburgh. Businesses were leaving,” he said.
Mr. Siegel, he explained, “was convinced that there was no hope for growth in Pittsburgh at the cost we were incurring.”
“We had a lot of hubs. What we needed was origin and destination traffic, and at the time Pittsburgh didn’t have it.”
No saving the hub
Whether enough was done to try to save the hub has been debated for years. Mr. Swelbar, for one, saw its end as inevitable.
“I really believe that the industry dynamics were such that there were no rabbits in the hat. There were no subsidies or financial arrangements the city of Pittsburgh could come up with,” he said. “It was simply that the industry deemed that hub as noneconomic.”
Mr. Roddey has come to the same conclusion.
“Nothing could have been done. There was a lot of talk about [lowering] our landing fees. That helps. It makes it a little more attractive. But nothing compares to origin and destination traffic,” he said.
“It’s a shame. It’s a set of circumstances that we really never had any control over. The problem was that we simply weren’t large enough to sustain a hub.”
By 2012, the airport that once offered flights to more than 110 destinations was down to 36. A year later, traffic bottomed out, falling to 7.8 million passengers, the lowest total since 9/11 and pre-pandemic.
Nonetheless, the collapse of the hub produced a few silver linings. It opened the door for the arrival of Southwest, now the airport’s largest carrier, and other low-cost airlines.
It ended the region’s reliance on one dominant airline, increased choice, roughly doubled the number of carriers flying from Pittsburgh, and concentrated efforts on building the origin and destination market — rather than connecting flights to other places.
While US Airways once carried more than 90% of the airport’s traffic, no single carrier now hauls more than 30%. Although Southwest and American stand as the airport’s top two carriers, ultra-low-cost alternatives like Allegiant and Spirit also have made inroads.
Over the past few years, after authority CEO Christina Cassotis took over, the airport has rebounded from its lowest days. By the middle of 2019, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of daily flights had grown to 180 or so, and destinations had reached 65.
Nearly 30 years after the midfield terminal opened in 1992, the airport is about to embark on another building campaign — a $1.4 billion modernization that will include a new landside building to handle security, ticketing and baggage claim. It is doing so with the blessing of a majority of the airlines, which will pay for the improvements through higher fees.
While the pandemic has cut into the airport’s recent gains in passenger totals and flights, Mr. George, who by necessity started the airport’s move to an origin and destination model and to a more diverse airline population, sees better days ahead.
“Are you getting air service to the places you need to go? Yes. Would you like to have more? Yes. Will you have more? Yes, you’re going to but never to the level of a major hub again,” he said.
Mr. Swelbar agrees. But two decades after 9/11, he still has empathy for what happened to the region and the airport.
“Let’s face it. US Airways was a very important piece of the Pittsburgh economy. Unfortunately, the industry changed, forcing Pittsburgh to change,” he said.