Southwest’s move at Pittsburgh International is seen as a positive for city

June 7, 2016 12:27 AM

The decision by Southwest Airlines to move its ticket counter and curbside check-in at Pittsburgh International Airport may have been made with more than passenger convenience in mind. It could set up the popular carrier for more expansion here.

With the move to the north end of the terminal last month, Southwest gained access to an automated baggage system with plenty of capacity to spare.

The baggage system, built exclusively for US Airways, has been largely underutilized since the airline dismantled its hub in Pittsburgh in 2004. It is now operated by American Airlines, which includes the former US Airways.

Before Southwest began using it, the automated system was operating at one-third of its capacity. It is now at two-thirds.

By tapping into the system under an agreement with American, Southwest could have the ability to add more service in Pittsburgh, where it has grown from 10 flights a day to four destinations in 2005 to 30 flights to 15 destinations today. That will jump to 16 in August when Southwest starts service to Los Angeles.

In making the move, the airline switched off a manual baggage system at the south end of the terminal that was becoming overtaxed with the number of new flights and new airlines added in Pittsburgh over the past 18 months. It was being used by all carriers except American.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald called the Southwest decision “significant,” adding that it “bodes well for us for getting more flights in the future.”

“I think there’s a good possibility that they will continue to expand their presence in Pittsburgh. Pittsburghers really like Southwest Airlines. It’s been good from the company’s standpoint, good from the airport’s standpoint and good from the traveling public’s standpoint.”

Mr. Fitzgerald said the county’s airport authority, which operates Pittsburgh International, has been having discussions with Southwest about adding more flights, although he would not be more specific.

“I think they’re still considering their options,” he said. “We’re putting forth some ideas we have.”

In a statement, Southwest said the facility change allowed the airline to “provide a better customer experience.” But it did not commit to adding more flights.

“While these changes do set us up to handle more capacity, we do not have additional expansion plans in Pittsburgh at this time,” it stated.

The airline noted it launched a flight to St. Louis in March, picking up one that an American affiliate had dropped, and intends to start L.A. in August. Both “demonstrate our commitment to PIT, and we will continue to evaluate customer demand and market forces to inform our decisions about additional service.”

Some industry analysts saw the Southwest move as a positive development.

William Swelbar, executive vice president of Intervistas Consulting of Boston, said it “suggests a real commitment to Pittsburgh. I certainly take that as an encouraging sign,” he said.

That, coupled with the new Los Angeles flight, “says to me that they have their eyes on Pittsburgh for additional opportunities.”

He saw expansion possibilities to the East Coast, including New York, although that could be complicated by slot controls at La Guardia. Philadelphia could be another, although Southwest abandoned that market from Pittsburgh in 2012 in the face of competition from US Airways.

Although Southwest has been focused on growing internationally, it also has signaled that it sees a number of opportunities for expansion in North America as well, Mr. Swelbar said.

William Lauer, a principal in Allegheny Capital LLC and a local aviation analyst, likewise sees potential for expansion by Southwest in Pittsburgh, although he noted that rides on judgments by the airline’s network planners on the demand for more flights.

“Southwest has been a fairly aggressive carrier in terms of domestic expansion. It wouldn’t surprise me [if there were more expansion in Pittsburgh]. Bringing that mechanized baggage system into play certainly doesn’t hurt,” he said.

Bob Kerlik, airport authority spokesman, said the Southwest move not only leaves opportunities for that airline to grow but those on the south end of the terminal as well. “It’s really a win-win for everyone,” he said.

He stressed that the authority is always in talks with the airport’s carriers about possible expansion. As for Southwest, “there are cities out there that we think fit into their network,” he said.

In an interview last October, David Harvey, then Southwest’s senior director of network planning and performance, said the airline will “continue to analyze the travel patterns, collaborate with our economic development partners in Allegheny County, and look for ways to add relevant and needed service.”

At the time, he saw service to the West Coast and competition to key Northeast markets as the region’s biggest needs, although he did not commit to adding flights to either. He did not rule out a return to Philadelphia, where American now has a monopoly from Pittsburgh.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

First Published June 7, 2016 12:00 AM

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