Let the airport fracking moolah take flight
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At the end of a recent wintry trip, I stood outside Pittsburgh International Airport's baggage claim for what felt like forever, waiting for a friend to give me a ride home.
I watched as cars pulled up to the curb, idling as they awaited arriving passengers. No police officer was in sight, so for at least 10 minutes, contrary to federal safety policies, very few of those cars moved. The stack of idling vehicles grew to three lanes deep.
When an officer finally showed up, the mere sight of his uniform scattered the scofflaws -- except for a gigantic pickup parked diagonally across two lanes, its driver missing.
"I guess we don't obey the law if you're not watching," I said as he reached the spot where I was shivering.
"And I can't be in two places at once," he said with a shrug. "I have to patrol inside the terminal, too, ever since they cut our budget."
Here's what I did not see -- have never seen -- at the Pittsburgh airport: long lines of people clamoring to buy tickets and being turned away by uninterested carriers. No, the airport is nearly a ghost town much of the time.
Despite -- or because of -- the occasional tumbleweed blowing through, our airport is a place where some pretty interesting populations and aspirations intersect -- especially in the past six days.
The two most attention-getting groups are members of the anti-fracking coalition and our various pro-drilling county officials. The latter group just negotiated -- and the airport authority approved Friday -- a $500 million, 20-year deal with Consol Energy that would allow up to seven drilling pads with 50 wells on airport property.
Gaseous emanations were already flowing, though, when county Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced the deal at Thursday's county council hearing. Citizens concerned about the high price in health we may pay in exchange for cheap gas waited an hour to rail against the deal as officials painted the benefits of drilling as something akin to a return to Eden.
The deal was a foregone conclusion: Drilling is more reality-based than declining to drill, because we humans usually choose certain money over uncertain risk.
But who will this new money benefit?
Federal Aviation Administration guidelines reportedly require that any proceeds from drilling be used to improve the airport or its properties. (Security, anyone?) Officials have already mentioned investing in capital improvements to support future development and reducing the amount airlines pay to operate here.
Reducing gate fees is always coupled with local leaders' desire to see more flights at the Pittsburgh airport. (They aspire to be in Paris instead of Pittsburgh and think direct flights between the two will transform us yokels.)
Two industry trends provide a cautionary note to our exuberant leaders: First, the FAA predicted last spring that higher fares, fewer routes and crowded planes are here to stay for some time. What's to blame? Climbing fuel prices, they say.
And The New York Times reported recently the fuel surcharges that airlines pass on to their large corporate clients are not being reduced when fuel prices drop; the airlines just pocket the windfall.
That's how the big guys fly. What's to stop them from pocketing Pittsburgh's new gate fee savings without adding any new flights? Nothing but tough and savvy negotiating.
I'm not holding my breath. This region's bullying-based political climate renders its leaders incapable of standing up to bigger bullies. US Airways sucker-punched us, and we keep going back, begging for more: "Please, please, will you like us now and give us back some flights and our lunch money?"
The fact that some local leaders just don't get this seems illustrated by their decision, two days before the fracking deal was announced, to demote Bradley Penrod, executive director since 2007, to president and chief strategy officer. They'll launch a national search for a new CEO whose focus will be on, yes, attracting more flights to Pittsburgh.
You guys couldn't wait to see if reduced gate fees would make any difference?
The county, despite a 21 percent property tax hike in late 2011 and the windfall of 2013's reassessed property values, still cannot provide adequate security at the airport, but it wants to invest the fracking windfall into attracting more flights?
You keep putting the cart before the horse, dear leaders. The authority represents all county residents and the proceeds of its Consol lease should benefit as many of us as possible -- including the thousands who rarely or never fly.
Clearly we need public health watchdogs to keep a close eye on our post-fracking water supply -- and citizens to keep watch on fracking's money supply.
First Published February 11, 2013 12:01 am