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Pittsburgh International Airport's economic engine sputters

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Friday, Oct. 28, 2011

Pittsburgh International Airport served as less of an economic engine for the region last year than it did three years earlier, based on findings of a recent PennDOT study.

PennDOT's Bureau of Aviation released a report this month showing Pittsburgh International directly and indirectly supported 67,219 jobs last year that generated $5.6 billion in economic activity. In 2007, the airport supported almost 4,000 more jobs and nearly $100 million in added economic activity, according to a previous study by the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

The consulting firm Wilbur Smith Associates, based in Columbia, S.C., performed both studies.

Airport officials tied the drop to conditions beyond their control.

One major blow: US Airways' downsizing. The airline continued shrinking operations in Pittsburgh for several years after closing its local hub in 2004. In the years between the two studies, it shed more than 1,000 locally based jobs and closed its local bases for pilots and flight attendants.

The economy did not do the airport any favors.

"It's directly related to the economy and fuel prices. As they improve, I think you'll see flight activity improve along with it," said Pittsburgh International spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny.

"Despite the economy and fuel costs, we still think there are a lot of growth opportunities here based on land we have prepared (surrounding the airport) for economic development. We are poised for a lot of expansion in the coming years," Jenny said.

Since 2005, about $60 million in public money has been spent to prepare more than 2,300 acres of land surrounding the airport for development, according to county figures. That has resulted in more than $1 billion in private investment related to manufacturing, warehouse, industrial and cargo space.

"The airport has gone through a transformation of sorts because of the disappearance of the hub, but it's still very vital, and I think the pace (of development) will pick up if the economy would actually rebound," said Findlay Township manager Gary Klingman.

Most of the airport is located in Findlay, and the remainder is in Moon Township.

Moon manager Jeanne Creese said the airport "is still our major economic engine, but we do have some others now," pointing to locally based corporate headquarters for companies such as FedEx Ground, GlaxoSmithKline and Nova Chemicals and Robert Morris University, which last year had its largest class of incoming freshmen, with almost 900.

Altogether, the region's 21 public airports and one heliport directly and indirectly supported 70,682 jobs that generated $6.2 billion in economic activity last year, according to the PennDOT report.

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