In Pittsburgh, the Airport Is a Destination

Pittsburgh International Airport.

The idea of spending extra time at the airport might not appeal to most people, but for years the Pittsburgh community has been longing for just that. Pittsburgh International obliged, becoming the first airport in the United States since Sept. 11 to regularly allow non-passengers into secured areas.

To get a daily My Pit Pass, people must show a valid photo ID and go through the same No Fly List vetting and security checkpoints as passengers. It’s not an altogether new concept — Pittsburgh International has hosted occasional public events for three years and the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh International Airport, like a handful of other hotels across the country, allows guests into secured airport areas — but it represents a revival of the facility.

Pittsburgh International’s huge US Airways hub shut down in 2004, ending thousands of jobs and hundreds of flights. But nonstop destinations have increased to 72 from 37 since Christina Cassotis became the Allegheny County Airport Authority chief executive in 2015; she initiated a $1 billion modernization plan that is set to begin in 2019.

“We’ve got space and we’ve got a beautiful facility and people are proud of it here,” said Ms. Cassotis, a self-professed “travel junkie” whose father was a pilot for Pan Am and United Airlines. “I’m from Boston and I moved here to take this job, and I am fascinated by this community because I’m learning about it constantly,” she said.

Below are edited excerpts from an interview with Ms. Cassotis.

Why is being allowed into the airport on a regular basis so important to the people of Pittsburgh?

When Pittsburgh International was built 25 years ago, it was built with the idea that retail would have a very prominent role. It really was credited as being the first air mall in the U.S. and it was something that the community here was incredibly proud of and really liked. I hear stories all the time when I’m out in the community; people fondly recall Friday night dinner at the airport, watching planes take off, meeting people from around the world. It was just an exciting place to be.

There’s been a lot of change in the last two and a half years to the physical facility that people read about, and unless you fly, you wouldn’t have access to that. We’ve added flights and brought European service back more robustly, so you’ve got a lot more activity going on out there. It feels like something’s happening and people want to be part of that again.

Despite allowing more people into the facility, no new T.S.A. security lines are being added to the airport. Has crowding been a problem so far?

We are averaging about a 150 people a day, which is just the equivalent of a new flight, so we can handle it. We purposely chose to allow this from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., because that’s a time when our T.S.A. average wait times are often below five minutes. It’s not crowded, we have room, and we monitor to make sure that the flying public always has priority. We did this mindful of the fact that we could maintain our high level of safety and security. The T.S.A. folks in our airport live in this community, so they know how important this is too.

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Credit...Pittsburgh International Airport

Beyond shopping and dining at the airport, how are people taking advantage of My Pit Pass?

There was a really nice story about grandparents who were meeting their grandchild for the first time; their daughter was flying alone with a baby, and they were able to meet her right at the gate. Also, there are parents with little kids who want to see big planes, and it’s nice that we can allow that.

Like other airports aiming for destination status, Pittsburgh International offers cultural events and an Art in the Airport program. What can visitors expect to see?

We have been very fortunate that the Richard King Mellon Foundation is sponsoring a lot of cultural and art exhibits at the airport to highlight community assets for travelers. We’ve got one with the Frick Pittsburgh [in Concourse B] and some happening with Carnegie Mellon University [including the interactive “Earth’s Time Lapse” installation in Concourse C showing changes to global environments over time]. There are new shops and restaurants and we have upgraded the overall look of the interior.

The city of Pittsburgh itself is experiencing a revival, economically and creatively. How does the airport figure into that?

Pittsburgh has this incredibly rich history in building this country and went through two big gut punches: steel tanked and then the [US Airways] hub left. What’s fascinating is to watch this whole community, with a lot of deliberate effort on the parts of a very bipartisan and cross-functional group of government, civic, university and nonprofit and business leaders, come together and say, “O.K., we have got to figure this out.” And now we’re seeing it happen. They’ve got this amazing diversified economy and their swagger is back.

For years this airport was looked at as a drag on the community. Now there’s all this new activity, all these new flights, all this excitement, all this investment. Now, people are thinking, “I’ve got to get out there and see what’s happening.” So, it’s sort of the continuation of the story of the region.

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