Economy
7:35 am
Mon October 1, 2012

Pittsburgh International At 20

20 years ago today the state-of-the-art Pittsburgh International Airport opened for business.   The late Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster greeted passengers at 5:30, the morning of October 1st, 1992.  US Air Flight 620 was the first to land at the new airport. 

The first passengers to deplane were Evan Sargent and his father Fred Sargent. Not coincidentally Fred Sargent’s father Ed and his father Ed senior were on the first commercial flight to arrive at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport forty years earlier. Thousands of visitors were on site as one hundred passengers came through the gate and into the airside terminal.

Commissioner Foerster was the political driving force behind the construction of the $1 billion facility and said the investment would pay off in development and jobs and making Allegheny County globally competitive.

The chief architect Tasso Katselas, the man behind the “X-design” of the midfield terminal, saluted, not the politicians or the contractors, but rather the workers, the people he saw everyday, "they built the dream, we are all local, we built this sucker." They built it, using some 42,000 tons of steel, all American made, much from the Pittsburgh area; glass and paint from Pittsburgh-based PPG; and the people movers were constructed by AEG Westinghouse of West Mifflin.

Bold Predictions

U.S.  Transportation Secretary Andrew Card was among two dozen dignitaries on hand for that first flight.  He called the new airport a "gateway to the world."  Commissioner Foerster predicted the facility would be the catalyst "for a Third Renaissance." 

But has Pittsburgh International lived up to those predictions? Brad Penrod, the executive director of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, believes it has.

"Certainly we know there has been a significant amount of development along Parkway West in the last 20 years," Penrod said.   "In the last eight years, we've seen a significant amount of development on airport property.  So I think absolutely what was stated 20 years ago is real life today." 

But has it gone according to plan?  Penrod says they updated their master development plan in January 2011, which was “a refinement of what we had done in ’04,” which was an update of the original land use plan.

“The fact that we’ve got corporate aircraft hangars, we’ve got world global headquarters for a couple of companies on property, we’ve got warehousing distribution centers—the things that are best suited for being around the airport, I would say it’s gone pretty much according to plan from 20 years ago.”

Development Up, Number of Passengers Down

While development on and around airport property has increased, passenger traffic has not.  The number of passengers coming and going from Pittsburgh International hit a peak of 20.8 million in 1997, five years after the airport opened.  But last year passenger traffic was 8.3 million.  The airport was built to handle up to 32 million passengers annually.

“As US Airways went through some challenges post-9/11, and they made some very tough business decisions how they were going to change their business model, whenever the US Airways hub was de-hubbed in November of ’04, that’s when we started to see the numbers drop so those connecting passengers went away,” Penrod said.

But Penrod said airfares have become more competitive and the number of passengers who begin or end their flights in Pittsburgh has increased by one million since US Airways closed its Pittsburgh hub.

Chances for a New Hub

 “If someone said to us today they’d like to start a hub up today in Pittsburgh, we could accommodate that by next week,” Penrod said.

But is an airline hub in Pittsburgh something that could happen?

“We know that there is a significant investment needed up and down the east coast to relieve some congestion issues, we don’t have that cost structure needed here,” said Penrod.  “So we think we remain a very competitive, attractive location” as airlines consider how they can be cost competitive, lets airplanes burn less fuel and realize there’s a lot of passengers “going to the east coast that have no desire to be there just to connect airplanes.”

Penrod insists even if there is no big increase, eight to nine million passengers can sustain the airport because Pittsburgh International has a better credit rating today than it ever had when it was a hub.  That’s due in part because the airport debt will be paid off in five-and-a-half years, saving the airport authority $60 million a year.

New Development Plans

In the meantime, development moves forward.  Plans were unveiled in July for 195 acres that includes jet hangars, a hotel, office buildings, a World Trade Center and a foreign trade zone “where there are certain rules and tariffs that are exempt ..for displays, manufacturing, assembly, some R&D type of work, “ Penrod said.

He hopes to bring that development “online” in the next couple of years.

Hopes Realized or Unrealistic?

Twenty years ago Paul Piccarilli was among the thousands of visitors when the airport opened and said he’d been waiting for that day for years.

“After we’ve seen the demise of the steel mills, this is the hope for our people, some jobs around this airport and maybe some overflow from warehouses and industries that might settle in around this airport.”

Penrod believes 20 years later those hopes are being met.  “We’ve diversified with some of the carrier mix.  Some of the warehouse distribution centers are now on airport property because that’s where they need to be,” Penrod said.  If you ask people why did you locate close to the airport, they say ‘it’s because of the airport.’  It’s a living, successful project that’s coming to reality, absolutely.”