Region can’t afford to pass on $1.1B Pittsburgh airport plan, officials say
Allegheny County’s aviation chief says the authority she runs has no choice but to spend at least $1.1 billion to overhaul Pittsburgh International Airport less than 30 years after it opened as a hub for the former US Airways.
Changes in the airline industry, local air service and the region’s economy warrant the investment, and mounting maintenance costs make it prudent, according to Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis.
“The most practical and pragmatic thing to do is to keep what works well and start over with the rest,” Cassotis said.
“There is no do-nothing” option, Cassotis said.
Construction expected to get under way this year includes building a new landside terminal that’s connected to the existing airside terminal where passengers board planes.
The new terminal will be the first major overhaul of Pittsburgh International Airport since it opened in 1992. It replaced Greater Pittsburgh International Airport, which had been the region’s airport since 1952.
The existing four-story landside terminal includes ticketing and baggage areas and security checkpoints. It sits a 70-second train ride away from the X-shaped airside terminal in the middle of the airfield.
The airside terminal retains a “wow” factor even now. Connecting a new landside terminal to it makes sense now that the airport is no longer a hub catering to passengers transferring to connecting flights, many of whom never set foot inside the landside terminal, said Mike Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, a Colorado-based aviation consulting firm.
Pittsburgh lost its hub status in 2004 as US Airways was in financial turmoil. In the 15 years since, the airport has transitioned from being a hub to an origin-and-destination airport where most passengers are traveling to or from the Pittsburgh region rather than catching connecting flights here.
Bijan Vasigh, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said the project also makes sense from a customer-service standpoint.
Designs unveiled this year aim to shorten walking distances for passengers and speed up flow through security areas.
“The service level is one of the most important things,” he said. “Passengers are choosing an airport.”
More passengers have been choosing Pittsburgh in recent years, thanks to increased flights and destinations. The airport had 9.66 million passengers in 2018, up from 7.99 million in 2014, according to the authority. That’s an increase of 21%.
Fewer moving parts
Losing its hub status didn’t just force Pittsburgh to change the nature of its air service.
During that difficult transitional period, the airport had to focus most of its resources on “keeping the lights on,” according to Paul Hoback, the authority’s senior vice president for engineering, planning and capital development.
That meant postponing most improvement projects and maintenance of the facility, something that put airport officials in the quandary that ultimately guided the decision to move forward with plans to build a new terminal.
“There’s a cost to that,” Cassotis said of making the upgrades necessary to the landside terminal. They would include rehabbing the 8 miles of belts that transport luggage on two systems between the terminals, continual maintenance of the trains that transport people between them and other regular work a building that’s more than 25 years old needs.
When officials announced the project in 2017, they said it would reduce operating and maintenance costs by an estimated $23 million a year.
The new configuration will make the airport more cost-efficient in the long term, Boyd said, and will result in fewer moving parts like the miles of belts and trains that transport luggage and passengers between the terminals.
The investment also is intended to help the region put its best foot forward and reflect an economy that has changed dramatically since the current airport was built, officials said.
The airport is the “front door” to the region for those flying here, and improving the first impression people get when that land here is important to marketing the region, said Allegheny Conference on Community Development CEO Stefani Pashman.
“We need to make sure the airport, itself, is emblematic of today’s Pittsburgh,” Pashman said. “To make people get a message that Pittsburgh is on the map and Pittsburgh is a world-class city.”
Something to prove
By the time it’s expected to be finished in 2023, the project could exceed the $1.1 billion that it’s now projected to cost.
That’s more than the combined cost to build Pittsburgh’s sports facilities, Heinz Field ($281 million), PNC Park ($216 million) and PPG Paints Arena ($321 million).
The only project larger in scope and cost is Royal Dutch Shell’s multibillion cracker plant under construction in Beaver County, which is expected to be completed as the improvements begin to take shape at the airport.
Bond money would be used to finance most of the project costs. Unlike heavily taxpayer-funded stadium projects, the authority would rely on revenues derived from sources such as airport parking, concessions, retail sales and airline fees to cover debt payments.
It is expected to be a boon for building trades in the region, according to Jeff Nobers, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania.
“We’re really looking to continue to build the workforce,” Nobers said. “We feel we’re in a good place.”
Big projects like the airport, cracker plant and several hospitals that are planned in the coming years mean that those in the building trades don’t have to look far for work, and more people are needed, Nobers said.
The project is anticipated to require 10,000 workers over four years of construction, Cassotis said.
“We’re doing the project because we have to. It’s time,” Cassotis said. “We are going to prove to the airlines that a medium-sized community in the center of the country that got dehubbed and left flat on its back can, in fact, come back and offer stable and predictable airline costs in a brand-new building. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .