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Pittsburgh Airport Gears Up for Development

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Big things are on the horizon for Pittsburgh International Airport and not all of them are the planes touching down. Since U.S. Airways shuttered its hub here 14 years ago, a new line of thinking has permeated the airport’s growth and development.

“We went back to the drawing board and the community understood that the hub wasn’t coming back,” says Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which operates the airport. “We didn’t need a train or a separate check-in terminal. We had to create a much more modern space that was the right size.”

As part of a $1.1 billion modernization project, the airport will demolish the former U.S. Airways terminal – designed to host 32 million travelers annually, while the airport last year saw just short of 9 million passengers. In its place will be a new terminal building featuring ticketing, security and boarding areas, as well as a new parking deck and reconfigured international arrival space.

The building itself will cost $783.8 million, the 3,000-space parking garage $258.8 million and road improvements around the airport $57.1 million. The project is slated for completion in 2023.

With that spending has come a change in thinking of what Pittsburgh International Airport needs to be. In 2015, when Cassotis took the top job at the airport authority, she says one of her conditions for doing so was that Pittsburgh International not look to become a hub.

Over the past three years, the number of nonstop flights from the airport increased 90% and in 2017 alone, eight new airlines added flights to Canada, Europe and the Caribbean as well as domestic flights.

“When you add a nonstop flight to a market, the number of people going back and forth will double over two years. It’s proven in the industry,” Cassotis explains. “The question became, ‘Who are we? What is our role in this community?’ We are the front door for a whole lot of people, so we must represent the community in arts, culture and economy.”

On the economic front, the airport is a center of development in the Greater Pittsburgh region. Of the authority’s 8,800 acres at the airport, about 3,000 are open for nonresidential development. Dick’s Sporting Goods has its headquarters there and Cincinnati-based Al Neyer LLC has committed to building two warehouses to join its other two buildings already at the Clinton Commerce Park, also on airport land.

“What’s the highest and best use for that land? What makes sense to be out here? We don’t want just anything there. Just because they can be there doesn’t mean they should be,” Cassotis says of the authority’s plans for real-estate development.

In 2014, Consol Energy began oil and gas drilling on the property’s outer edges. Those wells went into production two years later. The energy company paid $46 million upfront and the airport gets an 18% royalty on production from the wells.

On the horizon is Royal Dutch Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracker plant in Monaca, about 10 miles away from Pittsburgh International.

“Usually – and we looked into what happens when cracker plants come into areas – you see advanced manufacturing pop up,” Cassotis says. “The regional economy right now has a great asset in the Marcellus Shale.”

Adds Chris Heck, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, “The Shell cracker will have an impact on all our communities. It’s a great driver of jobs. It’s a game-changer.”

The chamber’s footprint covers 34 communities from the Fort Pitt tunnels in downtown Pittsburgh to Beaver County. Its membership includes all sectors of business, just about all of which have benefitted from the boom at Pittsburgh International.

“This is the place to be right now. When U.S. Airways closed up, you could hear crickets up here,” Heck says. “The local communities, from Sewickley to Moon to Robinson to Oakdale, are reaping the benefits of an international airport that is a job creator.”

Last autumn, the airport authority released an economic impact study. In 2015, Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport supported $29 billion in business revenue in southwestern Pennsylvania, including $16.6 billion in direct economic contribution, $9.5 billion in payroll and nearly 148,000 jobs.

The cargo operations at Pittsburgh International alone are linked to another 1,700 direct production jobs, mostly in precision instruments and electronics, the study found.

Travelers spent $800 million at the airport, supporting 11,000 jobs. Local, county and state tax revenue from airport operations totaled more than $98 million and federal taxes totaled $60 million.

“The airport itself is our crown jewel,” Heck says. “Imagine the opportunities with a $1.1 billion construction project. A majority of that work is coming from this community right here.”

A partnership was recently formed with Carnegie Mellon University to develop the new terminal into a testing ground of sorts. Through a memorandum of understanding, research projects by university professors and students that deal with the aviation industry will have an opportunity to deploy and test that technology here.

“We have the opportunity with this new terminal to start from scratch,” Cassotis says. “It doesn’t just make us the smartest airport on the planet, it makes airports all over the world smarter.”

The airport has created more opportunities for businesses and the public as well. In September, the airport began allowing visitors without tickets through security, a first in the United States since 9/11. And Pittsburgh restaurants and stores can host pop-up shops in the airport.

“It’s a big commitment to come into the airport and operate 24/7. It’s very different than running a spot downtown,” Cassotis says. “We offer them the opportunity to try their hand. That offers passengers the chance to try something new.”

All of these moves, the airport CEO says, puts the region in a prime spot for economic development in years to come. While the airport will certainly benefit, so too will the communities and businesses that surround it.

“We’re just getting started,” she says. “We’re operating in a very intentional and deliberate manner that’s focused on having the airport be viable and a good public facility that partners with the region.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.