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Making Pittsburgh’s Airport Safe & Smart

April 20, 2018

On Monday, February 12, the Trump Administration proposed the sale of Dulles and Reagan airports. Heads of major corporations–with loud voices heard in Washington–travel via New York airports to Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities. But, La Guardia and JFK airports are a disgrace.

Those airports are not alone.

Midway terminal in Chicago is located in a slum, LAX has an improvement plan that is larger than the budgets of some small nations, and Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) was never widened for large jets in use today. Arriving passengers at PHL spend more time waiting for “slots” where airplanes may park than they do in the air. And passengers wanting to check-in must wait in lines that are sometimes a mile long.

Twenty-two years ago, Republican Allegheny County Commissioner, Larry Dunn, successfully gained control of Allegheny County government after sixty years of uninterrupted Democratic Party control of the County and began to change how County government was managed.

A graduate of Duquesne University, and a minority commissioner on the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners, Larry Dunn is a post W.W. II generation Pittsburgher in a city with so many streets named after World War II battles that one wag asked if that War was fought in Pittsburgh.

Larry Dunn, literally “a new man” like the “New Man” that Tom Payne believed his times called for, brought new ideas, professional expertise, knowledge of government and a commitment to free enterprise economics to a dormant, ineffective, Allegheny County government.

I had just returned from development of privatization projects in Eastern Europe and was invited by Commissioner Dunn to bring my understanding of privatization to privatization of County government services. In addition to serving on a commission reviewing Allegheny County Community College (I recommended that it be privatized), I traveled with Commissioner Dunn to Washington, DC where he met with Sen. Arlen Specter and the House Transportation Committee chairman, Bud Shuster.

From those two meetings came passage of historic legislation permitting five municipalities from across the United States to privatize their airports–without being required to reimburse the Federal Government funding they had received throughout years of operation.

With legislation clearing the way for sale of the County’s civil aviation airport in West Mifflin, and a successful bidding process underway, the other two Commissioners suddenly wanted nothing to do with the sale of the airport.  They rejected the agreement the County had negotiated with a California aviation corporation that was planning to move their headquarters, and jobs, to Pittsburgh.

Preparing for legislation to privatize County Airport, I looked into how many U.S. airports had been privatized and found that only Teterboro had successfully freed itself from government control. “Why and how,” I asked a Teterboro official, did they get that approved? His answer: “This is Jersey!”

That’s not the way it works in most other States, nor Allegheny County. Management of American airports is conducted by “Authorities” composed of local worthies who relish free airport parking, but turn their back on privatization. For that reason, it is not unusual to find escalators or walkways in American airports that are not working, workmen who disrupt passenger movement–in the middle of the day—and jacked up prices for water, coffee and hot dogs! All that is representative of how federal, state and local government agencies are managed and the reason that U.S. airports remain third class facilities and a laughingstock.

That is not the case with Pittsburgh International Airport Authority where Christina Cassotis, is CEO of the authority governing PIT. Ms. Cassotis has, according to a report in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, doubled the number of destinations serviced by PIT and  has attracted new airlines and more flights, in part backed by millions of dollars in incentives. She has also signed an agreement with Carnegie Mellon University to transform PIT into a technologically “smart” airport.

That may be the plan, but much depends on post-9/11 security procedures that limit access to passenger areas of terminals. Few, if any airports, have adjusted by placing baggage security in areas outside airport terminals thus making airport terminals themselves targets of terrorists.

If the goal is to secure air travel from terrorism, it makes sense to use off-site terminals independent  of airports themselves. In other words, a goal should be to secure passenger boarding,  takeoff areas and travel in the air before landing by separating baggage security from passenger travel.

PIT’s terminal was built in 1992 and was a mall cum airport facility managed by a private British company where high end shops, restaurants and services were offered to travelers and non-travelers alike–at off airport prices. Then came 9/11, restrictions on access to airports, and USAir’s merger with American Airlines and departure from PIT.

Homeland Security regulations impede ease of travel by restricting access to passenger departure areas to ticketed passengers, and few airports have designed ways to ease moving passenger baggage from passengers to security personnel. In my home airport, after completing ticketing, I am required to carry my baggage to security personnel–a distance  of about 20 feet. No “moving walkway” services passengers in the area servicing Southwest and some other airlines. At most airports, long steel tables are in place where passengers lift their own baggage, remove their shoes, belts and place wallets, cell phones, coins and pens into tubs.

There has got to be a better way, and that may require separating the process of boarding from baggage security by moving baggage security into areas separated from the main terminal. In the case of PIT, that would require building another terminal cum mall and securing access to the main terminal for ticketed passengers only. That would make PIT not only “smart,” but safe.





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