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Shoppers still have to fly to get to airport's Airmall

| Monday, Dec. 9, 2002

Holiday shoppers once again will have to go about their gift-grabbing without the benefit of the Airmall at Pittsburgh International Airport.

The shopping mall intertwined with airline gates will not reopen to local shoppers anytime soon, despite merchants' concerns about sales as airport traffic has declined with the shrinking of US Airways, the airport's dominant carrier.

"There's still no access to the other side of the checkpoint unless you have a ticket," said Bob Blose, the Transportation Security Administration director in Pittsburgh. "That's not going to happen anytime soon."

Security restrictions imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks allow only passengers holding airline tickets beyond the airport's main security checkpoint and into the Airside Terminal. With the bulk of the Airmall situated in that terminal, the non-traveling public has been banned from the Airmall.

The Airmall blazed a new trail among U.S. airports when it opened in 1992, becoming the first airport shopping center in the country. Although it targeted travelers, the Airmall also pitched itself as a unique shopping experience to Pittsburghers and pledged to sell merchandise without the markups typically seen at airport shops.

Name-brand stores continue to open at the 100,000-square-foot Airmall, including The Gap, Clinique and Brookstone. Brooks Brothers opened a store there Friday.

The Airmall has been copied, but it still consistently ranks among the world's best. This year, a J.D. Power and Associates survey said the Airmall has the second-best eateries and third-best retail shops among U.S. airports.

Airmall operator BAA Pittsburgh, which leases the Airmall space from the Allegheny County Airport Authority, said the absence of local shoppers has dented sales in the past year, but has not brought store owners to their knees. Perhaps more troubling is the scaling back of flights by US Airways, which controls about 90 percent of Pittsburgh International traffic.

The move comes at a crucial time — the Airmall historically registers its highest monthly sales in December.

"What we have experienced has not been devastating because fewer people are flying, but travelers are coming two or three hours in advance because they still fear the security issues," said Lou Coccoli, an owner of six Airmall restaurants. "They have more time at the airport. They're eating and drinking more."

Still, Airmall officials are closely watching sales figures, waiting to decipher the numbers in relation to the security policy and US Airways cutbacks. Passenger traffic at Pittsburgh International is down about 8 percent from last year.

"We're waiting to see how everything turns in over the past week," said Tina Richardson, an Airmall spokeswoman. "It's tough because we have fewer people traveling through the airport, fewer flights."

The decision of whether to ease the restriction and allow people without tickets into the Airside Terminal is not Blose's to make. It's a national policy affecting all commercial airports. That means transportation leaders in Washington, D.C., would have to change their minds.

Even so, Blose agrees with the policy. He received a letter from police working at the airport saying they support banning shoppers, mostly because there are fewer mall-type problems — theft, loitering and littering.

Also, allowing shoppers could add to the wait at the main security checkpoint, which could delay airline passengers trying to board a departing plane on time, Blose said.

Kent George, executive director of the county Airport Authority, which owns the airport, wants the Airmall reopened to shoppers, and has said so in letters sent to the Transportation Safety Administration.

It shouldn't matter who has access to the Airside Terminal and the Airmall shops as long as they have been checked at the main security checkpoint, he said.

"Who cares whether it's a passenger, a customer or somebody that's going out to a gate to meet somebody else?" George said.

There was no indication on Friday whether Airmall sales were above or below expectations after the Thanksgiving holiday. Officials aren't sure what to expect.

Last Christmas' sales figures are not a good comparison because the holiday came soon after the terrorist attacks, which brought air travel to a standstill.

Even comparing this year's numbers with the holiday season in 2000 is not valid because US Airways, in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, has scaled back flights this year.

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