Airmall thriving despite fewer flyers at Pittsburgh International Airport
Bar Symon's farm-to-table themed menu is something Pittsburghers can enjoy only at the Airmall in Pittsburgh International Airport.
“It was excellent, and I only had a simple salad and grilled cheese,” said Tom Pietrcollo of Gibsonia, who ate there recently when he and wife Cindy returned from Italy.
Operated by Michael Symon, a Pittsburgh native who appears on the Food Network and The Chew, Bar Symon is one of many high-profile establishments Airmall USA has landed in its goal to make the retail shopping mall a destination.
“We're very proud of what we've done — an international mix of brands that are unique in Pittsburgh and the United States,” said Jay Kruisselbrink, Airmall's vice president of development, who boasts about having the first Pinko and Metalsmiths Sterling in the United States.
It hasn't done so without some challenges. Dramatic changes in air travel since 9/11 and the loss of the US Airways hub at the airport in 2004 have led to a decline in total passengers — from 20 million to less than 7.9 million last year, the fewest since 1975.
But fewer passengers doesn't mean the Airmall is hurting. It is one of the most successful airport retail centers. The operator hopes a just-completed $10 million renovation, its most significant overhaul since the airport opened in 1992, will help maintain its prominence.
Airmall has brought in a dozen high-end outlets. They include premium brands such as Armani Jeans, Pinko fashions for women, and Furla leather goods. The renovation began in January 2013 and was completed this summer. On Monday, Airmall is planning a grand opening celebration.
Attracting high-end brands — some available in Pittsburgh only at the Airmall — is part of a strategy “to make our lineup the one by which all others are judged,” Kruisselbrink said.
“We tell them we have 8 million people with great disposable-income demographics in one building ... and they understand that's a pretty good scenario,” Kruisselbrink said.
Airmall's average sales per passenger was $11.69 in 2013, according to Airport Revenue News, compared to an average of $10.36 for the top 50 in North America. It ranked 11th on the list, led by John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with sales of $14.16. The trade publication last year named Airmall the nation's best concessions program at a midsized airport.
The renovation has transformed the airport's airside terminal, making its central core into a hub for fashion and accessories. A 20-year-old information desk and displays with flight data were relocated to make room for rows of boutique-like retailers in a modern environment.
The key, said Kruisselbrink, was a seven-year agreement signed last year with Airest Collezioni of Italy, which specializes in travel retail, to open nine branded shops, including Furla, Pinko and Hugo Boss. MMGY Global, a travel marketing firm, reports there are more affluent travelers than ever, more of them women, and they're ready to spend more.
“Our research has shown 34 percent of travelers at the airport have an annual household income of more than $80,000. Of those, more than half have income of more than $100,000,” Kruisselbrink said.
Bar Symon is one of the places Pittsburgh-area residents and visitors will find only at the airport. Michael Symon's popular menu has fare such as his mac and cheese recipe, burgers and rosemary-spiked fries.
But the restaurant tries to attract travelers with more than just its menu. It has 250 cellphone chargers at tables and the bar, free Wi-Fi and displays so that customers can see the status of their flights.
Access to the Airmall is restricted to ticketed travelers, something the Allegheny County Airport Authority last month asked the Transportation Security Administration to consider changing.
Symon has his own solution. He plans to offer his food locally by opening two or three B Spot Burgers restaurants, said his spokesman Doug Petkovic. Symon, who has burger stores in Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus, couldn't be reached.
Airmall's new brands are impressing shoppers. Cindy Pietrcollo, browsing the leather goods and accessories at Furla with her husband Tom, said, “I saw a Furla store in Rome, and I thought there was a better selection here.”
Heath Bailey of Cecil said, “It's more upscale now — Hugo Boss, Armani Jeans, Lacoste — we were unaware of how upgraded it is.” Heath and his wife Kai, leaving for Murtle Beach, ate at Bar Symon. “I texted a friend of mine we are traveling with to go there when he gets here,” said Kai.
As part of its contract with the airport, the Airmall has a policy that makes retail prices at the airport comparable with prices found at stores and restaurants elsewhere — a departure from typically inflated prices found at many airports. But the Airmall's interior retail areas hadn't been updated in 20 years.
“Our airport, while still a great airport for businesses like mine, had started to look dated,” said Bill Newlin, owner of Mayorga Coffee Roasters and two Burgh Sportz Bar locations. “This project will help tremendously. For the Airmall to attract these great brands is impressive.”
To enhance performance, Kruisselbrink said, “we came up with our Blue Sky project. We blew out the central portion of the Airmall and put shopping along the core area that joins the airport's four corridors.”
Kruisselbrink expects the changes will bring a 10 percent to 20 percent sales increase among specialty retailers, which account for 35 of the Airmall's 77 shops and stores.
“We think it was a great project with some wonderful offerings that some folks don't have available to them,” said Jim Gill, acting executive director of the Allegheny County Airport Authority.
Gill said it's too early to look for an increase in sales, but he expects they will improve.
The authority is spending $4 million to install a public art floor during the next 18 months. The project, called “The Sky Beneath Our Feet,” will feature iconic Pittsburgh images, replacing tile in the center core, food court and leading to the four concourses.
Richie Diapolo, national sales director for Johnston & Murphy, a shoe and apparel retailer that opened its first airport store at the Airmall in 1994 and now has 20 in airports nationwide, said other airports try to emulate Pittsburgh. “But they can't because of the way their airports are built, so they are limited at what they can offer the customer. Atlanta, for example, has so many different retailers in so many terminals,” Diapolo said.
The Airport Authority's Gill said officials want to open the Airmall to more people without tickets.
Two years ago, the authority held an open house on the airport's 20th anniversary, attended by 600, who had to go through security checks. The airport Hyatt Regency allows guests to obtain a pass to the Airmall, after security checks. About 300 a year are issued.
“We reached out to the TSA last month, shared some information, and hope to have discussions with them,” Gill said. “We hope to demonstrate with the Hyatt program and the open house that it could be intelligently done without a burden on the TSA.”
Transportation Security Administration spokesman Michael S. McCarthy said the agency is reviewing the proposal submitted in August on the screening of non-ticketed passengers. TSA will communicate its decision directly with the authority, he said.
John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882. or firstname.lastname@example.org.