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Plans for upgrades at Pittsburgh International Airport face criticism

| Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 12:16 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A woman walks from a subway cars that take people from the airside to the landside terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport on Tuesday, October 22, 2013. The subway cars are among repairs happening at the airport this year.

Pittsburgh International Airport has earmarked nearly a half billion dollars to upgrade and maintain the airport during a 12-year period as passenger traffic falls.

A transportation consultant said the airport would do better to focus on further lowering gate fees that are almost double the national average than doing such things as spending more than $800,000 on a project that included rehabbing a children's play place.

The Allegheny County Airport Authority this month approved a $162 million operating budget and a $39 million capital budget for facility improvements in the coming year that include millions of dollars for things from runways to people movers. The money is mostly from fees that airlines pay and state and federal grants.

Satish Jindel, owner of Franklin Park-based SJ Consulting Group, criticized the past decade of capital spending, saying lowering gate fees might help attract more flights.

“The airport authority has failed to wake up and realize they're not a (hub) airport anymore,” Jindel said. “Our fees are still 100 percent higher (than the national average). They're rehabbing the terminal building. Who cares? Do any customers complain about the condition of the terminal building? No. They complain about flight choices.”

Airport officials said projects such as runway improvements are costly but necessary. Keeping the building in good condition with amenities helps attract flights, officials said. The airport opened in October 1992.

“We recognize we're no longer a hub, but we have a facility that's a little over 20 years old now, and just because you're not a hub you still have to have appropriate upgrades,” airport authority board member Dennis Davin said.

Gate fees could be significantly reduced in 2018 when a large chunk of the airport's debt is scheduled to be paid off, Davin said.

A decade ago, Pittsburgh was one of the nation's busiest airports with more than 600 daily departures. Traffic nosedived after US Airways closed its hub here in 2004. Today, Pittsburgh International serves 37 airports with non-stop flights averaging 151 departures per day.

A $50 million payment from Consol Energy on a Marcellus shale drilling deal on airport land helped officials reduce the average amount the airport charges airlines per passenger to $13.92 starting in January, a cut the authority approved this month. The median rate for airports is $7.33, according to Moody's Investors Service. Pittsburgh International began the year with fees at $14.66 per passenger and lowered them to $14.11 in July.

Pittsburgh served about 8 million passengers last year, down from 8.7 million in 2008 and from 19.8 million in 2000 when the airport was a US Airways hub.

Statistics show traffic decreased 3.5 percent in August with 702,402 passengers, compared with 727,579 in August 2012. Year-to-date totals show traffic down 2 percent with 5.27 million passengers through August compared with 5.38 million through August 2012.

Jindel pointed to specific items in the budget, including terminal renovations and $829,000 in 2013 for repairs to Kidsport, a place for children to play in the airport. He said non-hub airports don't need such amenities because there are fewer people who don't spend as much time in the terminal.

Airport Executive Director Brad Penrod said the Kidsport cost is part of a larger upgrade. Penrod said many of the capital costs are necessary to maintain a safe environment.

“A lot of it goes toward airfield pavement. A significant amount was spent on the roof rehabilitation. Once we moved in here 21 years ago, the residents expect and demand a world-class facility,” Penrod said.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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