PITTSBURGH — Deep within Amazon’s request for proposals for its second North American headquarters, in a section about logistics, is this sentence: “Travel time to an international airport with daily direct flights to Seattle, New York, San Francisco/Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. is also an important consideration.”
Later this year, Pittsburgh International Airport will check that box. Alaska Airlines is launching a direct flight between Pittsburgh and Seattle starting this fall, adding to a growing roster of destinations that does include New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C.
For all the things Pittsburgh has going for it, like a first-class university system and growing clout in artificial intelligence and robotics, it has been dinged for its transportation systems, including the airport. But in the last few years momentum has picked up, with direct flights to 74 cities, up from 37 three years ago, as the airport attempts to remake its identity from a hub for connecting flights to an end destination.
And now the airport is in the midst of a $1.1 billion makeover to prepare for a new era.
Pittsburgh is one of 20 remaining contenders for Amazon’s second headquarters, and while the region is considered a longshot, its efforts to land HQ2 are a window into the ways that cities around the country are making their case for the $5 billion corporate project and its 50,000 jobs.
Although the Pittsburgh International Airport modernization had already been in the works, the project was announced with great fanfare Sept. 12, just five days after Amazon released its HQ2 request for proposals.
Like Pittsburgh itself, the story of its airport is one of boom times gone bad, and getting knocked down only to rise up and reinvent itself. In 1992, a brand new terminal opened to serve as a hub for U.S. Airways, only to see the company to shed jobs and pull the plug in 2004.
In the following years, the airport struggled without a major anchor.
“When I got here three years ago, this airport had been pretty beat up,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, in an interview with GeekWire. “It was pretty deflated and demoralized, and the community wasn’t very hopeful that it was going to be able to participate in the economic renaissance that the region had been going through. And my job was to come in and see if we could bring in more flights. Could we reverse the downward spiral that the hub departing had on flights?”
The rebound of Pittsburgh’s airport shows in the increased number of flights, and growing passenger traffic. It handled close to 9 million passengers in 2017, an 8.2 percent increase over the prior year and the largest uptick in a decade.
That is still nowhere near the peak of 20 million who touched down here in the late 90s during the U.S. Airways heyday. That compares to the nearly 47 million passengers served in 2017 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which itself is getting a major makeover. Seattle’s metro area population of 3.7 million is about 60 percent higher than the Pittsburgh area at 2.3 million, but its airport saw five times as many passengers in 2017.
The airport could already handle millions more annual travelers, but areas like security and customs and immigration are bursting at the seams, Cassotis said.
That’s a big part of why the airport announced the massive redevelopment project in September. A new “landside” terminal will butt up against the X-shaped terminal, taking over for the current space which is separated from concourses and requires a train to go back and forth. The project also includes a new parking garage, new roads to serve the terminal and a reduction in the number of gates.
“For the first time, we can say that the airport is now caught up to the comm renaissance and is participating and actually making a difference,” Cassotis said. “The return of flights has made a huge difference. We still have a long way to go, and I’m not saying we’re done, but I think between the continual growth in flights and passengers and the facility transformation that we are absolutely in the mix now.”
The airport authority said the project requires no additional tax dollars. Funding comes from a variety of revenue sources, including rates and charges to airlines, parking revenue, concession revenue, real estate revenue and royalties from natural gas drilling on airport property.
When GeekWire co-founder John Cook touched down in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago for our month-long HQ2 project, his first impressions from the airport were underwhelming:
I stepped off the plane at Pittsburgh International Airport at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday night, excited to explore our adopted city.
The place was nearly vacant.
Shops were closed. Light music on the overhead speakers softly played. And security guards and custodial staff appeared to outnumber actual travelers, prompting GeekWire co-founder and California native Todd Bishop to observe that it felt like we’d landed in Sacramento, a decade ago.
When I arrived on Monday morning, as you’d expect, there was a lot more traffic there, but still lots of unused space. The airport was replete with homages to the city’s industrial past and other achievements, and some funky art installations.
But big chunks of the airport felt outdated. Huge, wide concourses felt cavernous in places. The baggage claim area sprawled on as far as the eye could see.
Many of these issues are set to be corrected in the redesign of the airport, which Cassotis says will be complete within approximately five years.
Should Amazon choose Pittsburgh as its final HQ2 destination, there’s a spot near the airport that could work, though that seems unlikely given the retail giant’s proclivity for urban offices and the airport’s 30-minute travel time into town. Cassotis wouldn’t talk about it, but she did note that the airport has 3,200 acres of developable land, with plenty of space for a company looking for huge swaths of offices.
When complete, the airport renovation project will bring capacity to approximately 18 million passengers, with a path to extend that to 25 million. If Amazon does pick Pittsburgh, airlines can very quickly up the capacity to match the crush of people the retail giant will bring with it, Cassotis said.
“If Amazon chooses to locate here, or anywhere else, the flights will follow,” Cassotis said. “This is an industry that can bring supply to demand faster than any industry I’ve ever seen. If the people are here, the planes will show up.”
Editor’s Note: Population for Greater Pittsburgh Region corrected since publication for direct comparison with Greater Seattle Region.