Since US Airways all but deserted Pittsburgh International Airport more than a decade ago, far fewer planes have been flying in and out. But the airport is so strategically positioned that no shortage of other businesses might want to land there. The Allegheny County Airport Authority is wise to bring in a consultant to determine the best possible uses for thousands of acres of unused airport land.
The airport, which opened in 1992, was built largely for US Airways. The now-defunct airline reciprocated by eliminating the airport’s hub status in 2004, a move that cut thousands of jobs and hundreds of daily flights and left the airport looking and feeling like a ghost town. Other insults, such as the closing of a flight operations center, followed. Despite the welcome success she has had in cultivating business from other airlines, airport authority CEO Christina Cassotis has proposed demolishing some of the unused gates — as many as 20 to 25 of the 75 gates sit idle, she said in August — with the aim of creating a smaller, more vibrant airport.
Last week, the authority board voted to retain Robinson-based Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc. — at a cost of up to $500,000 — to provide guidance on development of the airport’s considerable property holdings. Any demolished gates will be too close to the airport to be folded into new development plans. However, the proposals share a common theme: Looking at the airport in new ways and leveraging the potential.
Less than 25 percent of the 3,800 acres surrounding the airport currently are in play, meaning the authority has a lot of space to work with — a lot more than other airports have. The airfield is close not only to Pittsburgh but to surrounding counties and easily accessible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Interstate 79 and the Parkway West. Pittsburgh International also is the primary airport for the Wheeling, W.Va., area and parts of Ohio.
In other words, the unused airport land is sitting pretty. Pittsburgh’s economy is on the upswing, due partly to huge investments in driverless vehicle research, and Beaver County is anticipating a huge boost from impending construction of Shell’s ethane cracker plant. The airport might well become home to a burgeoning business park with ties to aviation, autonomous vehicles, energy and other fields.
The authority needs to proceed thoughtfully, however. Residential development should be off the table. There is no reason to have it near the airport because of problems related to aircraft noise and the difficulty of reclaiming the land if the authority should need it back one day. Along those lines, the authority’s development plans must take into account the possible need one day to accommodate much larger planes requiring much longer runways. It would not make sense to develop all of the unused land, only to box in the airport and limit its potential. Over the years, a lack of open space has hindered runway expansion plans at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, with Cleveland at one point feuding with the suburb of Brook Park over acquisition of property there. No one wants those problems in Pittsburgh.
The consultant should be able to help the authority navigate such issues. Pittsburghers have long considered the airport an underused asset. Now, it seems on track to become a hub once again.