Silence is deafening in airport concourses

Cutbacks by US Airways leave vast areas of Pittsburgh International's world-class facilities unused and quiet


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Kevin Tinta remembers the days, not too long ago, when his sandwich shop at Pittsburgh International Airport couldn't keep up with the crowds, when lines stretched down the concourse and he hardly had time to take a break.

Now, the few employees who work at Charley's Steakery, at the far end of B Concourse, can go eight hours without seeing a flight take off or land.

"A lot of times there's nothing for us to do," said Mr. Tinta, the manager.

The shop's plight is just one indication of the hard times that have befallen this once mighty hub. And it could get worse in January, when US Airways cuts another 40 flights and drops 18 of its 28 gates.


Graphics: Pittsburgh International Airport

The cutbacks will leave the airline with 68 daily flights and 1,800 local employees, down from highs of 542 flights and 11,995 workers before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks dealt a devastating blow to US Airways and the entire airline industry.

Altogether, the 13 airlines now serving the airport offer an average of 227 daily flights, down from 633 in August 2001.

Nowhere are the changes more evident than on the A and B concourses, where US Airways once controlled all 50 gates.

Once crammed with vacation travelers and anxious business people hustling to make connections, both have gone from bustling to boarded up.

In A Concourse, yellow caution tape is strung across the entrances to several former US Airways gate areas. Wallpaper and logos have been stripped away and most monitors are blank.

A US Airways special services center has been closed. One day last week, the concourse had the feel of a wake, with the spacious aisles all but empty.

Visitors had no trouble hearing the announcements or the music coming from the airport's sound system. While it might have been tough to hear a pin drop, it was quite easy to pick up the high-pitched squeals of a video game coming from a bar.

At the end of A Concourse, a bank of five gates sits largely unused, the lone exceptions commuter flights to DuBois and Bradford/Jamestown. About 15 travelers waited to board.

It wasn't long ago that the gates harbored some of US Airways' biggest planes. Now they serve as a base for the airline's commuter flights. A turboprop idled on the tarmac, waiting to haul a handful of travelers to DuBois.

"It never was like this. This place used to be packed," said Stan Foster, sales and marketing manager for SGL Group, as he waited to board.


Top 10
Here are the Post-Gazette's Top 10 alternative uses for all that unused concourse space at Pittsburgh International Airport:
10. Martha Stewart University, with classes on cooking, flower arranging, scrapbooking and home decorating.
9. The Mall of Moon -- complete with a Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, skateboard park, paintball field, velodrome, indoor water park and Xtreme People Moving.
8. The Mario Lemieux Pittsburgh Penguins Arena and Ice Emporium
7. Indoor NASCAR!
6. Cots-a-palooza -- rows upon rows of cots so the hundreds (or dozens) who still have delayed or canceled flights won't have to sleep on the floor.
5. The Banned Airline Film Museum, which screens all those movies with "negative" airplane story lines that never get shown on flights.
4. "Terminal Terminal" -- an upscale mausoleum space with departures daily.
3. Steely McBeam's Yoga & Pilates Studio.
2. Chihuly by runway light.
1. Four words: High-flying Slots Casino.

Abandoning A Concourse

In January, US Airways will abandon A Concourse altogether, where it once occupied all 25 gates, and consolidate what's left of its operations in B Concourse where it will keep 10 gates.

That will leave only Southwest Airlines, which started operations in Pittsburgh in May 2005, and its three gates on A Concourse. Twenty-two others will be empty.

The airport authority is still trying to determine what to do with those gates, spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said. One possibility is to relocate other airlines now operating out of C and D concourses to A, a move that would have been unthinkable six years ago.

"There's something bubbling and percolating in the planning process," she said. "It's not likely that that concourse is going to stay vacant for a lengthy period of time."

The gate consolidation could bring a shot of life to B Concourse, which has suffered much the same fate as A Concourse because of the repeated US Airways cutbacks.

While the first half of the corridor still brims with US Airways activity, the rest of it is dormant, much like a computer in sleep mode.

At the very end of B Concourse, five gates are empty and the monitors black. On this day, state officials are using one corner of the spacious waiting area to discuss assistance available to displaced US Airways employees.

It's the only sign of life.

A short walk away, Kyle McCusker, the lone employee staffing a Ben & Jerry's ice cream concession, said business has been extremely slow.

"By the end of the night, I'll probably be able to count the number of customers I had on my hands," he says.

In January, to save money, the airport authority plans to wall off the ends of the A and B concourses and close 27 gates.

Airport passenger traffic has fallen from a high of 20.7 million in 1997 to 9.9 million last year, due mostly a huge drop in connecting traffic. As US Airways has retrenched, abandoning its hub and spoke business here, pass-through traffic has plunged from a high of 13.9 million people in 1996 to 1.7 million last year.

With the cutbacks, airline costs have increased. The airport's per passenger cost has gone from a low of $5.98 in 2000 to $11.89 in September. It's a simple equation -- as fewer travelers come through the terminal, the per passenger cost increases.

Concession revenue from the award-winning Airmall has plummeted from a high of $89.9 million in 2001 to $65.3 million in 2005. It was $65.9 million last year. The number of stores has dropped from 110 (including those in the now closed commuter terminal) in 2001 to 99 in September.

Despite that and the many flight cuts, Jay Kruisselbrink, vice president of development for BAA Pittsburgh, the Airmall manager, said sales are still "very good" and actually "trending up over last year."

He acknowledged that some stores likely will be hurt when 27 gates are closed and the ends of the A and B concourses are walled off. But what overall impact that will have is hard to predict.

"We're hoping the impact in January will be minimal but time will tell," he said.

To some extent, the airport has been able to offset the losses by boosting its local traffic, spurred in large part by the success in recruiting low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue to start service in Pittsburgh after US Airways dropped the airport as a hub in 2004.

In two years, Southwest has become the airport's second largest carrier, with 15.5 percent of all traffic.

Origin and destination traffic -- that is, the number of passengers not getting off connecting flights and getting on another one -- hit a high of 8.2 million last year. That in turn boosted parking and rental car revenues to a record $29.7 million and $82.4 million, respectively, producing this paradox: While the airport has lost more than half of its passenger traffic, the parking lots are full.

Mr. Kruisselbrink said what the industry calls origin and destination traffic is actually better for the Airmall than connecting because travelers have more time to browse, particularly given security measures that require them to be at the airport 90 minutes to two hours before flights.

With the shift away from US Airways, the airport's C and D concourses, traditionally slower than A and B, have become busier. On these concourses you will find upstarts AirTran and JetBlue along with legacy carriers United, Delta, American and Northwest.

Most of these airlines have posted gains as US Airways has cut. But despite those successes and more local travelers than ever before, they cannot come close to making up for the traffic that has been lost.

Still, Mr. Kruisselbrink said BAA has given no thought to pulling out of Pittsburgh. He says the airport will rise again.

"It's a fantastic facility," he said. "It's just a wonderfully designed building. It's got the best staff of any airport. It's situated perfectly. We don't have any air space issues. So yeah, I don't know how long it will take but this is going to be a viable airport for a long time to come."


Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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