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Bostonian helps Pittsburgh airport take off

“There’s a lot of us who are time-poor,” says Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport. “An airport that has what we need, it changes the experience.”Max Petrosky for The Boston Globe

PITTSBURGH — Among the many noteworthy new features at the Pittsburgh International Airport is a rotating series of announcements played aboard the underground train that takes passengers from the main terminal to the concourses.

One lists the surprising number and variety of movies filmed in and around this city, including — who knew? — the 1968 low-budget horror classic “Night of the Living Dead.”

It’s an apt introduction to an airport that has itself come back from the grave.

When US Airways moved its hub from here in 2004, traffic plummeted from 21 million passengers per year to fewer than 8 million by 2013. The number of nonstop destinations dropped from 110 to 37. Ticketing and customer-service counters were abandoned. Gates were sealed off.


How a new airport director from Boston helped reverse this is a case study in the kinds of novel strategies a growing number of airports are employing, and that passengers are beginning to notice.

“Most people look at airports like bus stations. It’s where you sit while you’re waiting to get on a plane. In fact, a lot of airports look at it that way, too,” said that airport director, Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, as she showed off the reincarnated, under-renovation Concourse C.

In Pittsburgh, she said, “We’re trying to de-stress people.”

This sudden attention to passenger comfort is not because fliers have options; if they want to fly to or from a place, there’s usually only one commercial airport they can conveniently use at either end.

It’s the airlines that have choices. To attract them, airports need to charge the cheapest possible fees. That means squeezing so-called “non-aeronautical revenue” out of travelers instead, shoehorning restaurants into the middle of the corridors in Newark and adding the highest of high-end retailers (Burberry, Coach, Swarovski, Bvlgari, Gucci) to the international terminal at Toronto-Pearson.


It’s simple, said T.J. Schulz, president of the Airport Consultants Council: What they’re trying to do is to lower prices to attract airlines to come.” And for that, he said, “You need much better dining options, a lot of high-end shopping options.”

More than just money is driving this trend. Passengers worried about the lines at security checkpoints are showing up earlier and spending more time waiting for their flights, making them a captive audience for retailers and restaurants. Communities are seeing airports as gateways for convention planners and prospective employers, and using them to make a good first impression.

And the companies that run long-ago-privatized European airports (Frankfurt Airport Services, or Fraport USA — formerly Airmall — in Boston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore/Washington, for instance) are winning contracts to upgrade and operate the previously moribund concessions in government-controlled American ones, with their commissions dependent on how well they do.

So while promises to upgrade the nation’s roads and bridges are stalled by political dysfunction, the infrastructure inside many airports is getting new attention.

Pittsburgh International Airport features a Martini cocktail lounge.Max Petrosky for The Boston Globe

More than $100 billion of capital projects at the nation’s 30 biggest airports have been completed since 2008, are under way, or are planned, according to the industry association Airlines for America. That includes new, expanded, or modernized terminals in Denver, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans, Orlando, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Seattle. LaGuardia is in the midst of a multibillion-dollar overhaul.

In Pittsburgh, travelers in the ticketing and security areas are serenaded by live music during certain days and times. Those trains deposit them at the airport’s centerpiece, a redesigned central hub flooded by natural light with a shiny terrazzo floor called “The Sky Beneath Our Feet,” designed by a Carnegie-Mellon art professor and installed last year.


A sleek martini bar is nearby, where passengers relax instead of in the overflowing waiting areas; as airlines try to further maximize capacity, and deplaning passengers run headlong into passengers waiting to board, airports are trying to lure them away by putting bars and restaurants like these more distant from the gates.

Since travelers also are arriving earlier for flights, retailers struggling to compete with online shopping and the decline of malls have rediscovered airports. Pittsburgh’s has Tumi, Bottega dei Sappori, and a Hugo Boss store — the only one in this city.

“People love to shop here,” said Cassotis, a pilot’s daughter who went to UMass Boston and worked for Massport for five years before becoming an airport consultant and then getting the Pittsburgh job. (She also tended bar for a while at a now-defunct Beacon Hill hole in the wall.)

“It’s incredibly convenient. And there’s a lot of us who are time-poor. An airport that has what we need, it changes the experience.”

That’s also why more services — massages, spas, even gyms — are also cropping up in passenger terminals. “I only get my nails done at airports,” Cassotis said.

Not only has once-languid Pittsburgh International been named 2017 airport of the year by the industry publication Air Transport World and a top 10 domestic airport by Travel +Leisure magazine; TripAdvisor rated it a travelers’ choice favorite for shopping, and Air Revenue News reports that it rings up the highest revenue per passenger.


The airport has used this separate source of income to keep airline fees low and lure startup and budget carriers such as Allegiant, OneJet, Spirit, and Southern Airways Express and some of the whole new fleet of international airlines including WOW, Porter, and Condor (“Guten Tag, Pittsburgh,” its billboards on the departure level read).

“People love to shop here,” said Cassotis, a pilot’s daughter, UMass Boston product, and former Massport employee.MAX PETROSKY FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Smaller carriers are growing much faster than the four biggest airlines, based on seat miles sold. Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit are up more than 140 percent, Sun Country nearly 140 percent. Low-cost carriers now claim 44 percent of the domestic market.

You can fly to Ireland on Norwegian, the Azores on SATA and Cape Verde on TACV from Providence; Beijing on Hainan and Shanghai on Air China from San Jose; Dusseldorf on Air Berlin from Fort Myers; and Panama City on Copa from New Orleans.

This is one of the few remaining ways that airports can significantly increase service. And it’s helped Pittsburgh rebuild traffic to 8.3 million annual passengers. July was the busiest month since November of 2008, and the airport is back up to serving 68 cities nonstop.

Rather than making them invest in building custom ticket counters and gates, airports are letting those smaller airlines share gates and ticket counters, lowering their costs — another new trend. “They just plug in,” Cassotis said. At Pittsburgh, they also share a VIP lounge. There’s even a tiny duty-free store.


“One gate could be utilized eight times a day by eight different airlines,” said Bijan Vasigh, an expert in airport economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Much of this is happening in what used to be the US Airways concourse, now come back to life. New carpeting is going in, and new seats, and red piping is being replaced by calming natural wood. It’s still quiet enough that one wandering passenger stopped Cassotis to ask if she was in the right place.

This is not to say that all US airports are rebuilding; many remain dingy, overcrowded, and uncomfortable. North American airports still collectively need $20 billion a year in essential infrastructure improvements — more than half of it for terminals — according to the Airports Council International, which wants passengers to pay for some of this through an increase in the $4.50-per-ticket facilities surcharge.

Most suffer by comparison with airports elsewhere in the world. “From the Jetsons to the Flintstones” is how one traveler described flying from Stockholm to Newark.

As an industry, Cassotis said, “I’d like to up our game.”

Meanwhile, she’s doing one other thing a lot of airports are trying: adding local and not just chain retailers and restaurants and other things that make people recognize that they’re in Pittsburgh, and not one of many other anonymous, interchangeable airports.

A statue of former Steelers football fullback Franco Harris greets arriving passengers, and food choices include the Marathon Diner, an homage to a classic Pittsburgh restaurant, and the Pittsburgh-themed Burgh Sportz Bar.

“This is a huge opportunity for a community,” Cassotis said. “It can make the difference between someone thinking, ‘I’m going to bring my conference here or send my kid to college here.’ It really matters what we do here and how people feel when they come.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.