July 26, 2008

KLM Postpones Decision on Direct Service From Pittsburgh

By Bonnie Pfister

To the list of casualties of record-high oil prices, add the prospect of restoring direct air service between Pittsburgh and Europe anytime soon.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines -- which local officials have been wooing for at least two years -- has indefinitely postponed a decision on establishing service between its Amsterdam base and Pittsburgh International Airport, officials confirmed. The service would have been in conjunction with its U.S. partner, Northwest Airlines.

Allegheny County Airport Authority Executive Director Brad Penrod said KLM officials called him with the news, citing the recent run- up in oil prices.

"The region wants, expects and some would say demands (direct air service), because we have such a large European-based corporate community," Penrod said. "We made a very compelling story. Short of fuel prices, we would have had a different announcement."

Pittsburgh's airport has not had direct service to Europe since November 2004, when US Airways canceled routes to London and Frankfurt. Since then, local leaders have lobbied several carriers - - including KLM and Deutsche Lufthansa -- to start service.

More than 200 foreign-based companies have a significant presence in Western Pennsylvania, and many companies based here have operations in Europe. In December, KLM put Pittsburgh on short list of possible destinations.

In a trade mission to Europe a month later, executives from Westinghouse Electric Co., Medrad Inc., Lanxess Corp. and H. J. Heinz Co. met with KLM's chief executive CEO, pledging to book all their Pittsburgh-originating travel to Europe on KLM/Northwest, should the service be offered.

KLM's decision was disappointing to top staffers from nuclear engineering company Westinghouse, about 30 of whom are making their way back to Pittsburgh this weekend from an annual meeting in Manchester, England. Spokesman Vaughn Gilbert said he arrived at the meeting a day late, when his July 20 flight to Philadelphia was delayed beyond the time he could catch his London-bound connection. Other colleagues had to fly two hours south, to Atlanta, for a transatlantic connection.

"We would have been very happy to have a direct link," Gilbert said. "Our business is growing significantly in Europe. From Amsterdam you can easily make easy connections to the UK, France, Germany, Sweden."

Northwest/KLM announced that as of Oct. 1, they will cancel once- daily flights between Hartford and Amsterdam -- initiated a year ago. It will cancel its flights between Dusseldorf and Detroit, and suspend Paris to Minneapolis/St. Paul service until March 2009.

"The longer-haul flights are suffering disproportionately from higher fuel prices," said Gabor Kovacs, a former Federal Aviation Administration economist who is an airline consultant for Morten Beyer & Agnew in Arlington, Va. "(Fuel) makes up a large portion of their flight operating expenses."

Penrod, as well as officials with Allegheny Conference on Community Development and County Executive Dan Onorato's office, said they would continue to lobby for Pittsburgh International to international carriers before an economic rebound. Gabor said the scenario may not change soon.

"U.S. carriers and to some extent European carriers are restructuring all of their operations, and applying a much stricter profit threshold than before," he said. "Even if fuel prices come down somewhat in the next six months, that does not automatically mean services will be introduced."

(c) 2008 Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.