Pittsburgh Odyssey

I recently spent four nights in Pittsburgh for the annual Rail-Volution transit and land use conference (the best transit get-together of the year).  It gave me a glimpse as to how the post-industrial city is faring, and provided insights regarding Delta’s domestic operation.

My first flight was on one of the new Delta A321 planes RDU to ATL. Just as mentioned in the recent DL quarterly call report, the aircraft had five rather than four rows of First Class seats, meaning 20 to sell rather then the MD80’s 16.

Of course with 25% more seats up front it’s a challenge for the one FA staffed in First Class to serve everyone with the same care and attention as before on short flights like the 54 minutes Raleigh to ATL. Those four extra passengers mean a lot of hustle for the lone flight attendant.

Mid-flight she got some temporary but timely help from the FAs in the back, just enough to goose premium cabin service up to my perception of an ordinary level of care and feeding. It struck me that Delta anticipated the issue and developed a standard rhythm to front and rear cabin in-flight staffing to accommodate the four extra seats.

I was upgraded at the gate for the flight, which gave me a perfect four out of four comp (Platinum) upgrades on that itinerary to PIT and back. I’d already been upgraded to First on the other three segments several days in advance.

Frankly, that is why I chose Delta over AA or others. I certainly don’t always get upgraded on Delta, but I can’t snag an upgrade on AA despite having nearly 40 (and growing) 500-mile upgrades banked in my AAdvantage account. That’s been true for four years on AA: zero upgrades.

As a Lifetime Platinum on Delta I get Comfort+ seats complimentary as soon as I buy. So even if no upgrade to First, then at least I am more comfortable in coach than on American, since AA will not upgrade me without paying as a Lifetime Gold to Main Cabin Extra, dooming me to one of their wickedly uncomfortable slimline seats on the 737-800 fleet. Sorry, no go.

I checked AA. DL, and other airline fares RDU/PIT for the itinerary. The main cabin fares (never basic economy) were within a $20 range, so it was easy to choose Delta. There was also no appreciable difference in times among carriers serving the route that might have otherwise persuaded me not to use DL.

Boarding the Delta flight, I was reminded again that every window shade is closed as a matter of policy, and many people don’t open them at all. Continues to be a concern to me, as it makes for such a depressing and claustrophobic cabin.

Both flights went well, and I arrived PIT airport early.  Attending a transit conference, I was given a transit pass for the duration, so chose to take the 28X Airport Flyer public transit bus into the city.  Took about 50 minutes during the early afternoon period, but it was comfortable and dropped me within two blocks of the Wyndham Grand Hotel being used for the Rail-Volution conference.

The hotel has THE view of the city, located as it is at the point where the the Allegheny River and Monongahela River unite to form the Ohio River.  You never know what room will be assigned at a conference, but I lucked out with room 1914, which had a spectacular view of the three rivers, the point, and the steep bluff on the far side.



A walk around downtown confirmed that Pittsburgh certainly has changed for the better. I consulted there often in the 1980s for several divisions of Westinghouse (including Transportation Division that made the automated Atlanta Airport “people mover” train) and for other industrial and mining companies. I vividly recall the bleak winters of black snow from all the soot in the air then and the grim, Dickensian look and feel of the city. The best part of my weeks at the time was heading to the airport on Fridays to escape Pittsburgh.

It doesn’t feel that way now. It feels 21st century modern, cool, hip, and full of energy.

A footnote to those 1980s trips in and out of Pittsburgh airport: Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Airways, nicknamed Agony Airlines, had just recently changed its name to USAir to escape its bad rep. It couldn’t, though, and soon was called Useless Air by those of us forced to fly it. In snowy, frigid mid-winter weather USAir would often land at PIT and park way out in the tarmac because all its gates were full and its operations snarled up. The pilots were ordered to shut down the engines, including the APU, so that the planes were dark and without heat. Soon the interior would be an icebox. There we would sit without light in the freezing cold for as long as 2 hours waiting for a gate. No amount of complaining–and there was plenty of yowling–would cause the pilots to risk losing their jobs.

Of course this would occur for me late on a Sunday night as I was flying into the city to consult for the week.

In addition to the pain and suffering, I would still have to rent a car once in the airport and drive the 23 miles in snow and wind into the city. Thanks to USAir, I often didn’t get to my hotel until one or two in the morning. But I still had to present myself at breakfast to the consulting team at 6:00 AM Monday morning on three hours sleep and then work until 10:00 PM Monday.

There were few other direct flight options then, but I switched to TWA even though I had to leave earlier Sunday to connect using two flights. It cut my weekends at home to about 35-40 hours.

Leaving to return home four days later, I woke up spontaneously at 2:50 AM before my 3:00 AM alarm went off and checked out of the Wyndham Grand at 3:12 AM.

No trouble getting a Lyft car for $29.35 within three minutes of request and arrived airport at 3:40 AM (no traffic).  To my surprise, TSA was open, so I went immediately through security using my Delta app boarding pass.  It said “Pre” but the Pre line wasn’t open.  Nonetheless, the TSA staff gave me a special plastic card so I didn’t have to remove my shoes and belt, a relief.

Then, of course, I had to take the train to the remote concourse and gates at PIT (an “X” pattern with arms A, B, C, D).  McDonald’s opened at 4:05 AM, allowing me to get an unhealthy but delicious biscuit. More eateries were also open, unlike early mornings at other airports.

I had time to roam the concourses a bit. It was looking just a bit threadbare, but not too bad. Lavs were very clean and well-kept. Joe Brancatelli reminded me that once 600 USAir flights a day landed and took off at PIT, and they’ve had to close one or two of the terminals.

The airport and retail personnel were uniformly very friendly and cheerful, darned impressive at 4:00 AM. The facility also boasted quite an array of retail and food shops around the central core of the “X”.

Saw an Admirals Club (makes sense since this was the USAirways hub), but no Delta SkyClub or other airline club.

Happy observation: Every escalator (of many) and every moving walkway was working, unlike JFK terminals.  My overall impression: Pittsburgh Airport is now underutilized, but well-staffed to maintain respectable American standards of functionality, appearance, and cleanliness.  Bravo, PIT!

The two Delta flights back to Raleigh were exemplars of operational excellence.  Both boarded 35-40 minutes before flight time and pushed back on time or early.  Both arrived early to their respective destinations (ATL, then RDU).  Flight attendants were universally cheerful and efficient.

I tend to gripe and complain about Delta management’s indifference to their customers, but what can I say when I get upgraded on all four flight segments, and every one operates on time or early?  It made my life a lot easier on this nonstop business trip, as I had board and committee meetings all day after getting home following four full days of conference workshops and meetings.  I’ll try to conjure up a strong image of this overall experience next time everything goes wrong on a trip.


One thought on “Pittsburgh Odyssey

  1. Will, just a footnote to your comment on the Wyndham; I too had a room facing the direction of yours. That angular pattern of concrete down in the ground represents the outlines of the old Fort Pitt.

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