At Pittsburgh Airport, $1.1 B Plan Aims for Efficiency

Pittsburgh Airport is transforming from an overgrown former hub into an efficient gateway for travelers going to and from Pittsburgh itself.

Pittsburgh’s $1.1 Billion Makeover

  • July 2018 – Architects chosen
  • September 2018 – Design phase begins
  • January 2019 – Renderings prepared for the public
  • Late 2019 – Groundbreaking
  • 2023 – Project Completion

This September, Frontier Airlines will move gate locations at Pittsburgh International Airport.

This small move is the first tangible sign for passengers that a massive $1.1 billion modernization project is underway.  By the time construction is completed in 2023, the airport will have shrunk dramatically, transforming from an overgrown former hub into an efficient gateway for people going to and from Pittsburgh itself.

When Pittsburgh opened its brand new terminal in 1992, fueled by the growing USAir hub in the city, the facility was heralded as a model for hubs of the future.  There was a landside building with ticket counters, baggage claim, and security. This was connected to a commuter terminal with dozens of gates for the USAir Express operators that fed the hub. A short train ride brought travelers to the airside gates laid out in the shape of a giant “X.”

These gates were set up with an “Air Mall” concept so travelers and locals alike could browse and shop as if in any mall around the country.

Pittsburgh's current terminal layout Credit: Pittsburgh International Airport

As was the case in many mid-size cities, however, the hub wasn’t going to last. The economic decline that began in 2000 accelerated after September 11, 2001.  US Airways (the airline had changed its name in 1997) slashed flights at its Pittsburgh hub in a bid to reorganize. After two bankruptcies, US Airways was acquired by America West and what was left of the hub disappeared.  Even with the entrance of low cost carriers to pick up some of the slack, the still-massively over-sized facility had to be right-sized to serve the community.

The commuter gates had been razed during the declining days of the hub and turned into a parking lot. Parts of the gate areas were walled off.  Even after that, it still remained a ghost town. Traffic has rebounded, but now the facility is showing its age.

More than 25 years after it was built, big investment was needed to keep it running. Instead of sinking money into keeping up the facility, Pittsburgh has opted to spend money to alter the facility to better match demand.

Early mock-up of the new proposed Pittsburgh terminal layout Credit: Pittsburgh International Airport

Though the design has yet to be completed – Gensler, HDR, and luis vidal + architects were only selected this July to handle the design work – the basic plan has been set.  The landside building will be decommissioned entirely.

To handle the ticketing, baggage, and security functions, Pittsburgh will create a new building to fill in the west side of the “X” gate area. This will not only allow them to decommission the expensive train system, but it will also make it easier for travelers.

The roadways will be extended further east, right up to the “X” where passengers will enter and exit. Just to the west of that building will be a new short-term parking garage with rental cars. The footprint of the new facility will be much more compact than the old one.

Proposed new roadway between the new Pittsburgh landside facility and the parking garage Credit: Pittsburgh International Airport

As part of this process, the number of gates will be reduced dramatically.  The “X” today has 75 gates, but spokesperson Bob Kerlik says that only 35 to 40 are in use on a daily basis.  Once the renovation work is done, there will be only 51 gates.  Nearly a dozen of those eliminated gates will be on the west side of the “X” on concourses C and D where the new landside facility will sit.  And that brings us back to Frontier.

Even though ground-breaking on the new facility won’t be until the end of 2019, the airport has started working to relocate airlines as leases have expired.  Frontier will be the first to move in early September.  Spirit will relocate at the end of September or in early October.  That will be followed by Southern Airways Express in November and JetBlue early next year.  Those four airlines, each of which uses one gate, are the only ones using those doomed dozen gates today.

Relocations aren’t limited to airlines on that side of the facility, however. With the long term leases having expired in May, airlines are now working on new leases with the airport that could allow them to alter the number of gates for which they are responsible.   That could involve shuffling of all airlines over time.

When the new facility is done in 2023, it may be hard to remember what once was a thriving hub.  Those days are long gone, and it’s time for Pittsburgh to have an airport terminal that matches that reality.

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