CHARLOTTE ( TheStreet) -- Jerry Orr, longtime director of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, complained for years that hub carrier US Airways ( LCC) favored Pittsburgh over Charlotte. Things have changed. Charlotte/Douglas is among the country's fastest- growing airports. This month, it added flights to Rio and Honolulu, and US Airways said Rome service will begin in May. Charlotte currently has 552 daily departures to 127 destinations. Through September, it was the 11th busiest U.S. airport, according to Airports Council International. Pittsburgh International Airport, meanwhile, is fading out of the picture for US Airways. Today, the carrier operates just 46 daily flights to 11 destinations at the airport. Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks accelerated a steep decline in air travel, US Airways operated its biggest hub in Pittsburgh, with 550 daily departures to 110 destinations. Cost is a key reason the two airports seem headed in opposite directions. Charlotte/Douglas charges US Airways just 76 cents per passenger, likely the lowest rate anywhere for a hub carrier. Pittsburgh charges US Airways $8 to $10 per passenger. "The people US Airways used to run through Pittsburgh (are) now run through Philadelphia and Charlotte," Orr says. "When it costs $8 through one and 76 cents through another, and you can do either of them, which are you going to do? "When you produce the highest-quality product at the lowest possible cost, people will beat a path to your door," Orr added. For all airlines, Pittsburgh's average cost per passenger is about $10, said airport spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny. For each carrier, the cost reflects total charges (generally for facility leases and bond payments) divided by the number of passengers. Pittsburgh costs have risen "because US Airways pulled traffic out," Jenny said. Airport passengers totaled about 20 million in 2000: the 2009 number is about 8.5 million. Now charges, mostly fixed, are spread among fewer passengers.
This is not at all what Pittsburgh officials or US Airways envisioned when they agreed in 1986 "to develop a world-class airport that would be the airline's anchor hub for years," the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported recently. "Pittsburgh officials borrowed more than $900 million to build (it), largely to US Airways' specifications." The airport was widely admired. An array of upper-end stores lured shoppers who, before 9/11, could browse airport concourses at will. Pittsburgh had been US Airways' heart since 1939, when mail carrier All American Aviation began service to western Pennsylvania. For decades, employees called Pittsburgh "Mecca." Most airline infrastructure -- including the operations center, the largest crew bases, and a maintenance base -- was located there, even though Crystal City, Va., housed the executive offices. They were called "CCY." Present-day US Airways began to take form in 1987, when US Air acquired Piedmont, operator of the Charlotte hub. For years, cultural conflict divided the two regions. In a 2004 interview, Teddy Xidas, president of the Pittsburgh local of the Flight Attendants Association, declared: "Pittsburgh is rough and tough ... we come from labor, steel mills, blue-collar workers." By contrast, she said, "Charlotte is very delicate (with) gentle, soft souls. They wear their hair in a bow and say, 'I just hate that for you.' " In a 2007 interview, Orr discussed USAir's effort to expunge the Piedmont culture following the acquisition. "When you buy somebody, you ought to save the good parts and throw away the bad parts, but US Air did the opposite," he said, adding: "They thought the sun rose and set in Pittsburgh."
It came as a shock when the carrier first suggested in 2003 that it might eliminate the Pittsburgh hub. But the operation had become a losing proposition, a result of the newly higher costs and the emergence of nearby hubs in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago, which performed the same role for other airlines. With Pittsburgh shrinking, it could no longer supply enough local passengers, particularly higher-paying business passengers. And competition was fierce for outlying passengers who could connect in whatever hub they chose. US Airways lost $40 million in Pittsburgh in 2007, before a round of cutbacks, said spokeswoman Michelle Mohr. "Pittsburgh was a beautiful airport," says Mike Flores, president of the US Airways chapter of the AFA. "It was centrally located, the runways and facilities were excellent and the new terminal enhanced that. It worked well, when airlines made money." Today, carriers count pennies. Yet Charlotte is growing, first because "even with the banking industry in a bit of distress, Charlotte is still heavily business-traveler-oriented," Flores said. Secondly, along with the Delta's ( DAL) hub in Atlanta, Charlotte is one of just two Southeast hubs. Thirdly, current management "is some of the strongest we have had in 25 years," said Terri Pope, vice president for the Charlotte hub. "They understand revenue." As elsewhere, the benefits of a hub airport compound. So even as Charlotte suffers from banking sector turmoil, the hub lures new business. Last week, Swedish appliance company Electrolux moved its North American headquarters to Charlotte. The airport played a key role, said Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan. "Every company that looks at Charlotte is looking in part because of Charlotte/Douglas," he said. -- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C. .