Pittsburgh Int'l Opens Airside Areas To Non-Ticketed Visitors

Pittsburgh Int'l Opens Airside Areas To Non-Ticketed Visitors
Paul Nolan
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Remember the good ol' days, when passengers reunited and parted ways with family and friends right at their gates? After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, hugs, kisses and welcome signs were relegated to curbside drop-offs, baggage claim areas and designated meet-and-greet spots.

Until recently, that is.

Visitors at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) are returning to the nostalgic era of greeting their loved ones the second they deplane or embracing them tearfully one last time before they board. Under the airport's "myPITpass" program, which debuted Sept. 5, non-ticketed visitors with valid identification who pass the same security screening as ticketed passengers are able to access the airside terminal.


Project: Airside Access for Non-Ticketed Visitors
Location: Pittsburgh Int'l Airport
Program Name: myPITpass
Debut: Sept. 5, 2017
Development Timeline: 3 yrs
How it Works: Non-ticketed visitors with valid IDs obtain stamped passes from ticketing counter & undergo same TSA screening as ticketed passengers
Operational Safeguards: PIT employees monitor flow of TSA checkpoints & prioritize ticketed passengers if needed; airside passes are only available on weekdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Initial Volume: About 20 passes/hr
Associated Increase in Concessions Revenue: Not significant
Examples of Airside Features: Live music; children's museum; art exhibits; T. Rex skeleton; retail shops

Christina Cassotis, chief executive officer of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, says it's no accident that PIT is the first U.S. airport to open its airside gates, restaurants, shops and other attractions to non-ticketed visitors. "This is a unique community in Pittsburgh that loves its airport and wants to use it," she explains. "I speak frequently around the city, and one of the top five questions I've gotten is, 'When will I be able to go airside again?'"

A Long Time Coming

Airport officials began working with local TSA representatives three years ago to obtain approval for its new initiative. The myPITpass program builds on the airport's annual holiday open house, which draws up to 1,000 non-ticketed visitors, explains Cassotis. The airport also has long provided guests of the on-campus Hyatt Regency access to airside restaurants and shops.

Both Cassotis and TSA officials emphasize that the airport's new program will not impact security, nor will it cause delays for passengers needing to clear security checkpoints. PIT employees monitor the flow of people in TSA checkpoint lines and restrict myPITpass access to prioritize flow of ticketed passengers if needed. In addition, passes for non-ticketed individuals are only available on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., when the airport is typically less busy.

According to Cassotis, the airport issued about 20 myPITpasses per hour in the program's first couple weeks. 

TSA spokesman Mike England notes that TSA did not need to hire any additional personnel to accommodate the myPITpass program.

More Than Flight Ops

Like some other airports, PIT has created a veritable shopping mall and entertainment hub within its airside space. Post-checkpoint areas feature live music performances, a children's museum, art exhibits, a massive T. Rex skeleton and shops that are not available anywhere else in the city. In July, Travel & Leisure ranked PIT the sixth-best U.S. domestic airport (up two spots from 2016), lauding its "easy access, vast selection of restaurants, and design with a sense of place."

The myPITpass program allows local residents to take advantage of all the airport offers.

Additional concessions revenue from non-ticketed visitors is welcomed, but not expected to be significant if the use of airside passes continues at its current rate, notes Cassotis. "We're interested in monitoring the guest participation, but the program is already a success," she says. "The success is that we got it done. The success is the community feels good about it. The success is that some little kid gets to go over and see (airplanes from) WOW, Condor and Delta all lined up. That's why we did it."

The 25-year-old airport was originally designed and built as a hub for US Airways. In its heyday, PIT handled 21 million passengers at 100 gates. But US Airways and other airlines began closing hub operations at many U.S. airports in the early 2000s. US Airways pulled its hub out of PIT in 2003, and the airport now handles about 8.3 million passengers per year. It has 75 gates available, but uses less than 50.

Enjoy It Now

Pittsburgh area residents who love their airport may want to visit it before it completely changes. In September, the Allegheny County Airport Authority approved a $1.1 billion project that will "right-size" and modernize PIT. The project includes a new, two-level landside terminal, new parking garage and streamlined boarding facility with 51 gates. The existing facility will be demolished, sold or leased to developers.

The new facility will be built without local tax dollars, and the airport's cost per enplaned passenger will actually decrease once the new terminal is completed, emphasizes Cassotis. In one line item alone, the airport authority expects to save $23 million per year by not operating the tram and other people movers that transport passengers around the current oversized boarding area.

Plans call for breaking ground on the new airport in 2019 and completing it by 2023. The fact that the current terminal will be replaced may make non-ticketed visitors enjoy it even more. In a press event announcing the new airside access for non-ticketed passengers, Pennsylvania Congressman Tim Murphy said the program hearkens to a bygone time.

"I remember the era when you would see someone off at the airport gate," he mused. "Whether welcoming a grandparent you haven't seen for several months or a soldier home from war, it should be the point where they step off that plane that the families, the loved ones, the spouses and children should say hello. We have not been able to have that in the United States for over a decade."

In September, TSA didn't have any requests from other airports wanting to implement similar programs. Any airport that wishes to let non-ticketed visitors go airside will have to work with its local TSA officials and propose how it will address the change in its security plan, notes England.

Cassotis says the extra effort made sense for PIT because of the community's unique affinity for its airport, and she does not expect a rush from other airports to launch similar programs. "I can't imagine the congested, large hubs with wait times will find this to be a good idea," she reasons. "When I came here and realized how much people are interested in this airport, it was clear they want to be out here. I have not seen that in too many other communities."

Cassotis Receives ACI-NA Visionary Leadership Award

Christina Cassotis, chief executive officer of Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), received the 2017 Visionary Leadership Award from Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) at the organization's annual conference in September.

"Over the last year, Christina has significantly increased air service options, improved the airport's passenger experience, and elevated the role of the airport in its community and the broader aviation system," said ACI-NA's President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin M. Burke. "Her commitment to professional development and innovative thinking has strongly positioned the airport authority as a leader within the Pittsburgh community."

Cassotis said she is grateful for the honor and promptly credited her team. "From my first day as CEO, I have been inspired by the grit and resolve of a community that rises to meet its challenges head-on and continually comes together to succeed. I am lucky to lead this talented and hard-working team at this important time."

Cassotis assumed the top spot at PIT in January 2015. Since then, she has been instrumental in growing it and Allegheny County Airport, the general aviation airport also under her purview.


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