They built the wrong airport terminal here.
When the new Pittsburgh International Airport terminal opened 25 years ago, it was seen as the airport of the future. Planes could taxi all the way around the gate areas with no alley or buildings to slow arrivals and departures. It had a shopping mall and an advanced baggage system. And it had a half-mile train ride to gates, because nothing says modern airport like a train.
Now the airport’s speedy obsolescence stands as a symbol of how much air travel has changed. The expansive check-in area is largely empty—few travelers interact with anyone at the check-in counter anymore. The small security screening area—built before 9-11—is overwhelmed. Lines typically reach the terminal door and stretch back to parking in the morning.
“It was built for another time,” says
chief executive of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which operates PIT.
Airports across the country are finding they need to do more than just upgrade food, power outlets and pet-relief areas. Some need major systems upgrades, as the Atlanta power outage painfully demonstrated. And some need to rebuild to keep up with changes in the industry.
Airline consolidation has shifted traffic dramatically for some airports, forcing places like Los Angeles International to undertake a massive rearrangement of terminals. Others have had to deal with dramatic service losses when airlines shut down medium-size hubs in the middle of the country.
Phone apps, kiosks and self bag-tagging have shrunk some airport needs; security requirements have expanded others. The popularity of ride-sharing services has decreased parking, rental-car and taxi revenue for many airports, and prompted big questions like whether to build new garages.
The trade association Airports Council International-North America estimates that U.S. airports face nearly $100 billion in infrastructure needs over the next four years. Airports are urging Congress to raise the $4.50 cap on the passenger facility charge that each airport can include in a departing passenger’s ticket. Airlines oppose the fee hike.
With or without the increase, airports are pushing ahead. Local voters approved a $1 billion plan in November to build a single new terminal at Kansas City International Airport to replace the three circular terminals that opened in 1972, before passenger and baggage screening was required.
The Flights That Flew Away
Pittsburgh International Airport saw a steep drop in passengers starting in 2002, but has experienced slow growth in the past few years.
Source: Pittsburgh International Airport
Pittsburgh has approval for its own $1.1 billion rebuilding, which it says will actually lower costs and not require any increase above the $4.50 passenger fee.
The airport built for the convenience of connecting passengers now has few out-of-towners just passing through. But it remains inconvenient for locals. There are few covered parking spaces in a snow-belt city and long walks from parking spaces. The train you have to ride from gates to the street is unnecessary and costs over $4 million a year to run.
Three years ago Ms. Cassotis arrived and began a campaign to convince the community that the hub was never coming back. Cities love airport hubs—the local residents and businesses get nonstop flights to many more cities than local traffic alone can support. (They also typically pay higher fares, because a single airline has dominant market share.) Plentiful air service can help attract corporate relocations and conventions.
“It’s very hard for a community that has had all that service to understand that’s not their future,” she says.
Her staff had been struggling with a master plan—how could they rework the existing terminal into what Pittsburgh needed, not what a hub airline needed?
The airport has two big buildings—one “landside” for check-in and security screening, and a second “airside,” with gates laid out in a large X formation. The underground train connects them. The airport wanted to consolidate into one building with a big new security area, single baggage system and short walks. The check-in area would be only half its current size. A new transportation center across the street from the terminal would include covered parking.
Ms. Cassotis, a longtime airport consultant who had never run one herself, met monthly with some mentors for advice when she started the job. Former Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport CEO
drew an idea on a napkin over dinner: Eliminate 24 gates of the 75 gates to build a new landside building, filling in the bottom of the X, and attach the two structures together.
“It’s a smaller space overall, but way more efficient,” Ms. Cassotis says.
The airport authority approved the plan in September, and Pittsburgh expects to break ground on the three-year project in 2019.
The airport is growing again, aided by the strong local economy. Passenger traffic is up 7.7% this year and Pittsburgh has 72 nonstop destinations, up from a low of 37. (The peak from its days as a US Airways hub was 110.) The airport has recruited discount carriers like WOW and Condor from Europe, and new types of carriers like OneJet, which flies scheduled service on small business jets on routes abandoned by airlines. Southwest now carries the most passengers at Pittsburgh, slightly ahead of American, which merged with US Air in 2013.
The 1992 building was so focused on connecting passengers, it provided no exit for international arriving passengers except going through security screening. This is normal for connecting customers boarding domestic flights, but almost unheard of for sleepy locals who just want to get to their cars.
“People hated that,” says
senior vice president of facilities.
So the airport knocked a new exit through a wall. When international flights touch down, security guards commandeer an employee hallway and use an emptied-out storage room to get arriving passengers whose final destination is Pittsburgh to the airport train. They have to ride in a single train car with a guard who makes sure they exit.
To alleviate the baggage system problems, the airport spent $1 million to move Southwest’s check-in area and put the airline on American’s 8-mile-long automated baggage system. But Southwest found the system too slow for arriving customers—it took more than 20 minutes for bags to travel to carousels.
Southwest went old-school, driving bags in tugs straight to baggage claim. The airline uses the automated system for outbound bags only.
Write to Scott McCartney at MiddleSeat@wsj.com
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