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How PIT Survived the Pandemic Part 3: Ready for Takeoff

As the pandemic continues to rage into the fall, PIT initiates more improvements to keep the terminals safe for passengers, airline crew and airport workers, and officials push forward with planned development in and around the airport to prepare for the post-pandemic era they hope is on the horizon.

Photographs by Beth Hollerich | Video by Natalie Fiorilli and Beth Hollerich

‘Neighborhood 91’ and an airport microgrid

September 2020 - PIT Passenger Volume: 240,774, down from 788,665 in September 2019

Pittsburgh International Airport’s plan to become the first major airport to be completely powered by its own microgrid moves a step closer to completion as crews install five bright green, 100-ton natural gas-fired generators that will help power the facility.

Airport officials first announced plans for the microgrid in October 2019, after a number of major airports experienced power blackouts that resulted in flight cancellations and other disruptions.

Expected to be fully operational by June 2021, the microgrid is projected to lower the cost of electricity to the airport and its tenants while making PIT one of the most site-hardened airports in the world.

In mid-October, officials announce that Wabtec Corp., a Fortune 500 company, will become the first manufacturing tenant at the Neighborhood 91 additive manufacturing campus on the west end of the airport property.

Neighborhood 91 is the first development in the world to both condense and connect all components of the additive manufacturing and 3D printing supply chain into one powerful production ecosystem.

In a video, Christina Cassotis lays out the promise of the new development:

Signs of hope? 

October 2020 - PIT Passenger Volume: 306,491, down from 872,035 in October 2019

On Oct. 18, the Transportation Security Administration screens more than 1 million passengers at airports nationwide in one day for the first time since March 17. Additionally, the TSA sees its busiest travel week since the start of the pandemic, screening 6.1 million passengers at U.S. airports from Oct. 12-18.

Earlier in the month, Pittsburgh International records its single highest travel day since mid-March, with more than 7,000 travelers. PIT logs its busiest travel week since March during the Oct. 12-18 period, as the TSA screens 36,576 total passengers.

Does the gradual rise in travelers come as a surprise for industry experts? Yes and no, says Seattle-based aviation consultant Carrie Kelly.

“For airlines, predicting what fall travel was going to be like was like looking into a crystal ball and it still kind of is,” she says.

And the uptick is short-lived, as a surge in virus cases turns deadly, leading to more restrictions and shutdowns around the country. The normally busy holiday travel season is tepid at best.

Investing in innovation

November 2020 - PIT Passenger Volume: 274,215, down from 795,011 in November 2019

Traditionally, Thanksgiving starts a travel season that begins heavy, slows in early December and picks up again near Christmas and New Year’s. But as the season arrives, state governments begin issuing regular travel alerts to keep pace with a pandemic that shows little signs of slowing.

On Nov. 17, Pennsylvania begins requiring travelers who are entering the state to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to entry or quarantine for 10 days upon entry, one of the strictest travel orders in the U.S.

Governments and health providers urge people to think through their travel plans. They might mean driving instead of flying, or just staying put.

“We certainly understand,” says Bryan Dietz, PIT’s Vice President of Air Service Development. “Obviously, we would love to see even better traffic numbers than last year, but safety is our highest priority. For those who want to travel—or have to—the airport has taken many precautions to give people confidence that the airport is safe.”

Meanwhile, the airport announces its latest transformative venture, called xBridge. The 10,000-square-foot innovation center is being custom-built to nurture the evolution of the industry and inspire creative solutions to aviation’s many challenges.

The xBridge “will be a proving ground for new technology that will benefit the airport, our airline partners and the passengers we collectively serve,” said Katherine Karolick, Senior Vice President of Information Technology.

The xBridge will contain maker space, an open design studio, and mockups of the various parts of an airport, such as concessions and the arrivals area.

Looking back, giving thanks

December 2020 - PIT Passenger Volume: 240,211, down from 771,789 in December 2019

As if to signal the exhausting end of a very tough year, December air traffic at PIT falls by 70.4 percent compared to December 2019, the biggest drop since July.

Undeterred, PIT continues to upgrade its “Safe Travels” initiative to increase public confidence in air travel and airports. The program draws on best practices for reducing the spread of germs and additional measures as prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among the Safe Travels introductions in the spring and summer: more than 2,000 social distancing decals, 130 plexiglass panels, 19,000 masks and four UV-equipped floor scrubbers. The airport reconfigures the seating at some gates and makes health and safety public address announcements every 15 minutes.

In December, PIT introduces a high-tech handwashing station, the first of its kind in a U.S. airport. The station is located at the airport’s Landside train platform, just past the TSA security checkpoint, which was identified as another high-touch area.

On Dec. 21, a voluntary COVID testing site opens beyond the security checkpoint in the Airside Terminal. PIT joins major U.S. airports to offer onsite testing, including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Tampa, San Francisco and others.

As the year comes to a close, the airport gets a big vote of confidence with a newly signed operating agreement that keeps the billion-dollar Terminal Modernization Program moving.

The agreement between the airport and the airlines serving it authorizes $150 million to finish the design of the TMP, a major step in the project.

The Airline Operating Agreement, or AOA, runs through 2021, committing the airlines to cover the airport’s operating costs. In exchange, the airport agrees to use airport-generated revenue such as parking and concession funds to lower airline rates.

As we embark on a new year, we remain vigilant about health and safety procedures during the pandemic’s tragic winter surge. But with COVID vaccines rolling out, we’re hopeful that 2021 will be a better year for the country—and for air travel. We look forward to seeing more of you soon. In a holiday message below, CEO Christina Cassotis reviews a difficult year and expresses hope for the future. – The Blue Sky staff: Natalie Fiorilli, Elise Gomez, Beth Hollerich, Bob Kerlik, Audra Lewis, Kristin Mageras, Jeff Martinelli, Matt Neistein, Paul O’Rourke, Samantha Stedford, Ashlee Wallace and Alyson Walls.