Pittsburgh International Airport's midfield terminal at 20: A shell of its past self
Travelers walk through the terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport, which opened 20 years ago.
Pittsburgh International Airport will see some 8.3 million passengers this year.
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It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Close to 40.8 million people were expected to travel through Pittsburgh International Airport this year, the 20th anniversary of the midfield terminal. A new satellite terminal should have been facilitating travel to far-flung international destinations.
Instead, an estimated 8.3 million passengers will use the airport in 2012. And the $1 billion terminal, an architectural marvel praised often for its efficiency and ease of use, sits half empty in the middle of the airfield, like a Ferrari on blocks.
"It makes my stomach grind," said Tasso Katselas, the Pittsburgh architect who designed the complex. "I try to fly at peak hours so that it appears to be busy."
It's easy to forgive the 1993 master plan that calculated 40.8 million travelers by 2013, given that it would have taken a biblical prophet to predict the kind of upheaval in the airline industry that has left the midfield terminal a shell of its former self.
No one foresaw the changes, certainly not Edwin I. Colodny, the former USAir chairman who cut the deal with Allegheny County to build the facility, one tailored specifically to his airline's needs.
"We were building for the long term," he said.
No doubt the midfield that dignitaries will commemorate on Monday is a far different terminal, at least in terms of usage, than the one that opened at 5:30 a.m. sharp on Oct. 1, 1992, when USAir Flight 620, a red eye from San Diego, docked at the new building.
Gone is the Pittsburgh hub that US Airways built and then dismantled, one that at its peak pumped 20.7 million travelers through the midfield terminal. At one time, the terminal handled 633 nonstop flights a day to 114 destinations.
Today, midfield is down to 155 daily flights to 36 destinations. Airlines at one time occupied as many as 104 gates, including those in a commuter wing, with US Airways leasing three-quarters of them. Now use is down to 50 gates, with US Airways occupying 10. The airport has closed half of the A and B concourses, once used exclusively by US Airways. The commuter wing has been vacated and part of it is now used as a secondary security checkpoint.
Over the past decade, Pittsburgh has lost nonstop service to dozens of markets, including San Diego; Seattle; Indianapolis; Nashville, Tenn.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Toledo, Ohio; Harrisburg; and State College, much to the distress of business travelers who at one time could go virtually anywhere in the country without changing planes.
"You probably could get a flight in those days from East Liberty to Squirrel Hill," said Cyril Wecht, a nationally known forensic pathologist who served as a county commissioner during the years the terminal was being debated and planned.
With the elimination of the hub in 2004 and numerous flight cutbacks, US Airways employment in the region has dropped from a peak of 12,000 people to 1,800 today.
Few envisioned such a cataclysmic tumble in the years leading up to the terminal's construction. At the time, US Airways, then called USAir, was one of the nation's most profitable airlines, and its operations at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport were bursting at the seams.
The late Tom Foerster, former chairman of the Allegheny County board of commissioners, led the charge to build a new terminal based on Mr. Katselas' design -- an X-shaped boarding facility linked by an underground tram to a landside building for ticketing and check-in.
At first Mr. Colodny resisted the plan, whether as a negotiating ploy or simply because US Airways enjoyed dirt cheap fees in the old terminal, some of the lowest in the country. But by 1988, his resolve weakened as it became more untenable for the growing airline to stay in its old space.
"The rubber band couldn't be pushed any farther," he said.
In retrospect, he does not believe building the midfield terminal was a mistake.
"I'm not going to second-guess the decisions we made at the time. I think they were the right decisions. They were made in cooperation with the county commissioners under chairman Tom Foerster and with input from the state and community," he said. "The need was there."
To the county, the terminal project was a major economic development initiative, one that would generate thousands of jobs and open up nearly 10,000 acres of land surrounding the airport to business.
There were few dissenting voices, but one of them was Dr. Wecht, a Democrat who did not oppose the project but who raised concerns about tying midfield's fortunes to one airline. He was out of office by the time the county finalized the deal to build the terminal.
"I don't think it was a mistake to build it. I think it was a mistake not to have sought out one or two other airlines to develop or expand their routes out of Pittsburgh," he said. "I was in favor of knocking on other doors and seeing what could be done."
Barbara Hafer, a former Republican commissioner who signed the agreement to build the terminal in 1988, said she also was uneasy about that aspect of the deal but didn't believe the county had much choice. She said US Airways insisted on being top dog at midfield.
"We really probably didn't have at that point any other options, but I really felt we were putting all of our eggs in one basket," she said.
Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant, sees no reason for the second-guessing.
"[Building midfield] was the right decision. They should be congratulated for having that vision at the time. The airline industry changed. They didn't know that. I didn't know that. If I had, I would be in Las Vegas making book," he said.
For most of the first decade after the midfield terminal opened, much of the news was good. Passenger traffic grew from 16.7 million in 1991 to an all-time high of 20.7 million in 1997. The terminal itself won widespread acclaim from travelers who enjoyed its wide concourses and modern amenities, such as moving sidewalks.
A new concessions concept, called the Airmall, also took off, with a blend of national and regional retailers that were required to charge the same prices for merchandise and food as they did at their off-airport locations.
Midfield seemed to be poised for a record year in 2001 when the bottom fell out after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As airlines struggled to survive in an industry increasingly dominated by low-fare carriers, US Airways filed for bankruptcy twice.
The end of the first bankruptcy in March 2003 came with a surprise. Shortly before emerging, the airline rejected its midfield leases, signaling the beginning of the end of its Pittsburgh hub. By late 2004, it was gone for good.
"We busted ourselves for USAir. We did everything possible to, in essence, make them successful and then what did we get in return? 'See you later.' It's a shame," said Stephen A. George, a former county aviation director who helped to negotiate the midfield leases.
Nearly a decade later, some still debate whether political leaders did enough to try to keep the airline from dismantling the hub.
Mr. Katselas remains angered that federal and local politicians didn't secure guarantees from the airline to keep its hub in Pittsburgh in exchange for the billions of dollars in aid the airline received after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Quite frankly, they're the ones responsible for what we have now," he said.
But Jim Roddey, the county executive who was in office during the turmoil over US Airways, said he had no power to make demands when the federal government was the one doling out the cash.
"They didn't consult with us. They didn't ask us. That was a unilateral decision made by the federal government," he said. "[Mr. Katselas'] theory might be nice, but his facts are wrong."
Mr. Boyd doesn't believe anything could have been done to save the hub. He said an airline struggling to make ends meet didn't need three hubs. The hub in Philadelphia offered US Airways a much larger local market, while the one in Charlotte, N.C., gave it a foothold in the south and in one of the largest financial centers in the country.
"There's nothing wrong with Pittsburgh. It was just the odd man out," he said.
As a result, the midfield terminal is a far different place today than it was when it greeted its first travelers in those predawn hours 20 years ago. Despite the loss of flights, some would argue the adjustment has had its bonuses.
For one thing, midfield is a much cheaper place to fly from than it was as a fortress hub for US Airways. In fact, at one time, the biggest complaint from local fliers about the airport was not the lack of service but being gouged on fares.
All those US Airways cutbacks opened the door for low-fare carriers like JetBlue and Southwest, now the airport's second largest airline.
The average fare at Pittsburgh is now 10.3 percent below the national average and 26 percent lower than it is in Cleveland -- where Pittsburghers, including former Mayor Tom Murphy, once drove to get cheaper prices. In addition, the price of air travel has dropped about 16 percent at the airport between 2000 and 2010, while shooting up 45 percent nationally.
That, in turn, has helped to increase local traffic by 6 percent over the past decade. In fact, people are now coming from Cleveland to board planes in Pittsburgh, not the other way around, said Bradley D. Penrod, executive director of the Allegheny County Airport Authority.
After a slow start, development on the county land surrounding the airport has started to take off. Some 16 buildings representing more than $325 million in private investment have gone up on the property. The projects have created or retained more than 5,000 jobs, according to the airport authority.
The airport's ability to stay solvent and to re-create itself as a facility built around local travel, not connecting passengers, has become a model for cities like Cincinnati, Memphis and St. Louis, which are now experiencing the same kind of airline pullbacks that Pittsburgh did earlier.
"I think Pittsburgh has worked exceedingly hard and creatively to utilize its space and to attract new service, and they have been fairly successful," said Lois Kramer, a Boulder, Colo., airport consultant.
The midfield terminal bottomed out in 2009, when passenger totals hit the lowest level since 1975. With the worst behind it, some think the airport has a chance to soar again.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has made increasing air service a priority, said he believes midfield can become a hub again, or at least a focus city, for a major airline.
"It is a state-of-the-art facility built for US Airways. It has all that infrastructure in place. It's not like it's obsolete by any means. It's still one of the best facilities in the country and in the world," he said.
Mr. Fitzgerald said he has had "some pretty good talks" with airlines about the potential for creating a hub in Pittsburgh. While nothing has come of them so far, he isn't about to give up.
"We're going to do our best. We've been told we can't do it before. We tend to buck the odds here," he said.
There's more than convenience at stake. A good airport can be a big selling point in attracting and retaining business in a region. Conversely, the lack of adequate air service can drive companies out.
Cincinnati discovered that last year when one of its best known companies, Chiquita Brands International, announced that it was moving to Charlotte. The move was made in large part because of inadequate service out of Cincinnati, where Delta had decimated its hub.
One selling point Allegheny County might have with airlines interested in starting service in Pittsburgh is that the bulk of the midfield terminal debt will be paid off by the end of 2018. When that happens, the average cost per passenger should drop from one of the highest in the country at $14.28 to $8.
With the congestion on the East Coast and at other major hubs, Mr. Katselas believes the county also should be pitching the fuel savings airlines can achieve operating out of Pittsburgh. One thing that sold US Airways on the midfield terminal was a study that showed the airline could save up to $12 million a year in fuel costs because of the X-shaped terminal design and its location in the middle of the airfield.
"It's a matter of realizing how economical it would be for them to operate here. They have to be shown facts and numbers," Mr. Katselas said.
Consultants are less optimistic about midfield's chances for a comeback, particularly given that many airlines are in a period of limited growth and are looking to close or downsize secondary hubs, not add them.
While Mr. Boyd doesn't see a hub in Pittsburgh's future, he does see some growth in the frequency of service, but not in nonstops.
"You've got a solid base of traffic, a solid economy. It's going to build slowly. There are no more shocks to the system. I don't think anybody is harboring any dreams that it's going to be a gateway to the world," he said.
Nonetheless, Mr. George believes the midfield terminal has a chance to defy the odds. He noted that the region's population is starting to grow again, the city is strong, and air travel "is still the best way to go."
"I just feel, how can it get any worse?" he said.
First Published September 30, 2012 12:00 am