Pittsburgh is another example of a major city whose culture and economy is increasingly determined not by its underlying fundamentals but by the dictates of an ever more concentrated, yet failing, airline industry. After it lost most of its steel industry in the 1970s, the city did everything the apostles of the so-called new economy said must be done to compete in the emerging global economy. When the city played host to the G-20 Summit in 2009, President Obama hailed Pittsburgh’s transformation “from a city of steel to a center for high-tech innovation—including green technology, education and training, and research and development.” That same year Forbes named Pittsburgh one of America’s best cities for job growth, while the Economist lauded its cosmopolitan cultural amenities, such as the topflight Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Opera.
But Pittsburgh’s renewal as a vibrant, creative, international city is now in doubt, due to the downscaling of its international airport, which now stands largely empty. Pittsburgh International was able to offer more than 600 daily nonstop flights after the city went deeply into debt to turn it into a showcase during the 1990s. But when US Airways merged with America West and concentrated its hub operations in Philadelphia and Charlotte, Pittsburgh service tumbled. US Airways’s daily flights have plunged from 542 to sixty-eight, causing the shuttering of half the gates at the airport as well as sections of two concourses.
K&L Gates, one of the country’s largest law firms, used to hold its firm-wide management meeting near its Pittsburgh headquarters, but after flying in and out of the city became too much trouble, the firm began hosting its meetings outside of New York City and Washington, D.C. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the biggest employer in the region, reports that its researchers and physicians are increasingly choosing to drive to professional conferences whenever they can. Flying between Pittsburgh and New York or Washington can now easily take a whole day, since most flights have to route through Philadelphia or Charlotte. A recent check on Travelocity showed just two direct flights from Pittsburgh to D.C., each leaving shortly before six in the morning and costing (one week in advance) $498 each way, or approximately $2.62 per mile.
Emphasis added. Wow. Where do I start? I picked up on this story via Aaron Renn's Twitter feed. Referencing the above piece, Carol Coletta (ArtPlace) commented: "This is the most serious challenge for mid-size cities in U.S."
If this bit about Pittsburgh is indicative of the troublesome trend, then Coletta's comment comes across as hyperbolic. I would go so far as to call it a red herring.
The authors of the article in The Washington Monthly toil for the New America Foundation. The best thing I can say about the analysis is that it works as a polemic. But the assertion about Pittsburgh's renewal now in doubt is bunk, unsubstantiated.
Back in the world of data-driven analysis, Pittsburgh is enjoying record job growth. Best ever. The regional workforce is hitting historical highs. I'm not about to start wringing my hands over airline deregulation.