There are several signs of recovery as Pittsburgh International Airport approaches the 20th anniversary of its $1 billion terminal complex, still hobbled by the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The most recent came last week, when plans were announced for developing 195 acres of airport property with office buildings, research and development space, a hotel and jet hangars that would be connected to airport taxiways.
The Allegheny County Airport Authority already has attracted a total of 16 buildings that have gone up on airport sites that were cleared and prepared for construction with public funds, said Bradley D. Penrod, authority executive director. He said the private investment in those buildings was $350 million.
The sites are generating $2.5 million in annual rent and lease payments, revenue that is helping the authority lower the rates it charges to airlines operating at Pittsburgh International, he said. And more is in the offing: Groundbreaking for a 40-acre development adjacent to the Cherrington business park is expected this year, and design is under way for expansion of Clinton Commerce Park.
Meanwhile, several upgrades are being made to the terminal complex, including full rehabilitation of the short-term parking garage that is scheduled for completion by Thanksgiving; installation of canopies on the landside building to better protect it from water and ice damage; and renovation of taxiways and runways. The authority spent more than $25 million on capital improvements last year.
Financially, the airport is better off than it was a decade ago, as evidenced by an upgrade of its credit rating by Standard & Poor's in April, Mr. Penrod said. Another New York rating agency, Moody's, revised its outlook for the airport authority from "stable" to "positive" at the same time.
Moody's cited as strengths the stability of passenger traffic; no significant airport competition within 100 miles; its annual receipt of $12.4 million in state gaming revenue; and land development along with the strengthening of Pittsburgh's economy.
It cited the airport's relatively high charges to airlines of more than $14 per passenger as a weakness. But that number has improved in each of the past two years.
Passenger traffic is a fraction of what it once was -- 8.3 million last year, down from a peak of 20.8 million in 1997. But the number of passengers who begin or end their travel here -- as opposed to connecting -- has increased by 1 million since US Airways dropped Pittsburgh as a hub, Mr. Penrod said.
According to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, air fares at Pittsburgh International are well below the national average and have dropped nearly 19 percent since 2000. For the fourth quarter of last year, Pittsburgh was 71st out of the top 100 U.S. airports in average domestic fares.
Moreover, the airport has reversed what was once a notorious phenomenon: Pittsburghers, including its former mayor, Tom Murphy, driving to Cleveland to catch lower-cost flights. "That's all but stopped," Mr. Penrod said.
Airport research, meanwhile, has detected a 40 percent gain in passengers from the Cleveland area. Cleveland had the 11th-highest average fares among the top 100 U.S. airports in the fourth quarter, according to DOT.
A recent visit to the terminal complex found a few signs of aging -- a couple of men's room toilets wrapped in black plastic; some cracked vinyl upholstery on seats; and badly stained carpet (which is scheduled for replacement) in some gate areas.
The complex is noticeably less busy than it once was, but several travelers said they continue to give it high marks.
"It's a nice little airport," said Angela Ivill, a flight attendant from Wintersville, Ohio, who has commuted from it for 14 years. "I've seen some dumpy airports. It's not dumpy. It's clean."
"I think it's right up there with any of them," said John Miller of Beaver Falls, a frequent air traveler who was on his way to Orlando, Fla. "It doesn't seem like it's 20 years old."
"It's clean and user-friendly," said Lori Devereaux of Manchester, N.H., awaiting a flight to Boston's Logan International, which she described as "crowded and a lot more dirty."
Don and Pam Lizon of Wellsburg, W.Va., said the airport is easy to use and they especially appreciate the Airmall, which offers 70 retailers and restaurants, down from a peak of 100.
"I wish some of these shops were accessible without a boarding pass," Ms. Lizon said.
Mr. Penrod said the authority continues to push for allowing general public access to the shops, which are in the airside building where only ticketed passengers have been allowed since security was ramped up in 2001. So far, the Transportation Security Administration has OK'd only a pilot program that gives guests at the airport's Hyatt Regency hotel access to the Airmall, with a requirement that they clear the security checkpoint.
"I go all over the world. People will come up to me and say, 'That's a great airport,' " said John F. Graham, who oversaw construction of the complex for Allegheny County two decades ago. "Its features have been copied by everyone since. This airport is still the best airport around." Airport authority spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny is planning a celebration for the 20th anniversary on Oct. 1, a date that was chosen, Mr. Graham said, to coincide with his daughter Wendy's birthday.
"We still hear very positive comments on the building," Mr. Penrod said. "The building has aged far more gracefully than I have."
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published July 15, 2012 4:00 AM