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County officials seek airline for London runs

Thursday, July 24, 2003

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

After an arduous battle three years ago to regain air service between Pittsburgh and London, Allegheny County officials don't intend to lose it again without at least pitching the route to other airlines.

County Chief Executive Jim Roddey and the Airport Authority are actively trying to recruit another carrier to take over the flights, to be discontinued in October by US Airways, which said there isn't enough passenger traffic to continue flying the route.

Roddey and authority Executive Director Kent George said they are talking to both domestic and overseas carriers about picking up the service, which US Airways began on July 17, 2000.

"This will not be an easy task, especially with the downturn in the economy, the downturn in travel internationally and the current financial conditions of the carriers of the world," George said. "But it does not mean we will not be talking with a number of carriers that have shown some interest and we will try to put together a package to entice them to come here."

Neither George nor Roddey would say what carriers they are pursuing, although possible candidates for a phone call include British Airways, which offered and dropped the service before US Airways, and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

Further complicating the matter is that the right to fly the route currently rests with US Airways, meaning that any new carrier probably would have to petition the U.S. Department of Transportation for approval to start service. The agency has the power to reassign the right to another airline if US Airways is not flying the route.

The Airport Authority, in a July 18 letter, notified US Airways that it intends to court other carriers, calling the decision to cancel service "unjustified." It argued that ridership was sufficient to maintain the service.

"The authority [to fly the route] is considered southwestern Pennsylvania's authority," George said in an interview yesterday. "We will oppose strongly any reassignment of those slots that do not provide service from Pittsburgh to London."

US Airways conceivably could try to transfer the authority to either its Charlotte or Philadelphia hubs, but the airline has no plans to do that, spokesman David Castelveter said yesterday.

As part of the service, the carrier also has control over take-off and landing slots at London's Gatwick Airport, rights it must renew twice a year.

With the decision to cancel its Pittsburgh-London flights at the end of October, US Airways already has informed British airport officials that it does not intend to use the slots for the winter travel season. It must decide by November whether it will pick up the slots for the summer. If it doesn't, they revert back to the control of British airport officials.

Castelveter said US Airways was willing to work with Pittsburgh airport officials "to explore options to reassign the slots." He declined further comment.

Any airline interested in starting Pittsburgh-to-London service would have to petition British airport officials for slots or already have slots available to them.

Among the airlines the Airport Authority plans to talk to are some which already have slots available at London airports or which have "the ability to obtain slots," George said.

He said slots at London's Gatwick and Heathrow airports are not as difficult to obtain as they once were because of the troubles in the airline industry.

"There's plenty of cargo that's very profitable. We feel there's a downturn in all trans-Atlantic flights and that it should come back," Roddey said.

Roddey also is trying to rally the business community to help in the effort to maintain service. Through local chambers of commerce, he is urging businesses booking flights to London to fly from Pittsburgh rather than New York, Newark, or Philadelphia.

British Airways discontinued service from Pittsburgh to London in October 1999 after 14 years, saying that it was trimming money-losing routes.

US Airways then offered to fly the route, obtaining authority to do so only after pitched U.S.-British battle that involved the broader issue of aviation rights between the two countries.

Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

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