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"Editorial: Sky’s the limit: Pittsburgh airport area is ready for thoughtful growth"

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sky’s the limit: The airport area is ready for thoughtful growth 
By the Editorial Board

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.
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