Calling out the Airport Authority — finally

Calling out the Airport Authority — finally

The president of Allegheny County Council is calling for more oversight of the county Airport Authority’s spending.

It’s about time.

Patrick Catena’s entreaty came in a Monday Post-Gazette story about the prudence of the agency spending more than $150,000 to travel to London to woo British Airways (BA) to expand its flight schedule at Pittsburgh International Airport.

The P-G’s Mark Belko, through a Right-to-Know request, reports that the authority sent a contingent of 12 people, plus county Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald, at a cost of $8,583 per person. They flew in pricey business class in October.

“In all, the four-night trip cost the Airport Authority $162,859. The biggest expense, at $111,585, was the airfare,” the P-G reported. “The authority spent another $44,216 on hotel rooms and $7,059 on meals and taxis.”

As the P-G also notes, an additional delegation of about 30 local business and community leaders who paid their own way traveled with the Airport Authority group.

And, as you might expect, the Airport Authority defended the trip, the number of junketeers and the cost, as paying off with British Airways agreeing to two additional daily flights beginning this spring.

It was a “business trip” and those authority staff making the trip deserved to fly business class, goes the authority’s argument.

It again cites “economic impact” numbers and, thus, claims the trip essentially paid for itself.

Never mind that the Allegheny Institute repeatedly has shown how the supposed “economic impacts” of these flights are vastly overstated.

Never mind that BA already held an additional $500,000 taxpayer-funded option to add more flights (never disclosed in the authority’s original $3 million public subsidy to the airline).

Never mind that an expert tells the P-G any information the junketeers imparted on British Airways was readily available and could have been had without the expensive trip or a far smaller contingent of junketeers traveling in coach.

“You couldn’t show support with a regular airplane ticket rather than flying business class?” Catena asked. “It seems like that’s stretching it a little bit.

“I understand they’re trying to recruit business,” he told the P-G. “But obviously flying business class, that’s a bit excessive, especially when you have people struggling day to day paying taxes, paying for medicine, paying for food, especially with inflation being where it is at this point in time.”

And that’s just a microcosm of the larger issues, as far as Catena is concerned. Again, from the P-G story:

“In general, Mr. Catena said he believes there’s a need for more oversight over the authority’s spending and practices even though its budget is funded largely by landing fees and other charges paid by the airlines and not taxpayers.

“I’m not happy with the way money is being spent out there. It all affects Allegheny County residents one way or the other, whether you’re paying fees or whatever,” he said.

But the bottom line remains that no matter the sources of the money – from direct taxpayer dollars or fees paid by the airlines – it is, by its very nature, public money. After all, the Airport Authority is a public authority.

County Council President Catena’s call for greater oversight of the Allegheny County Airport Authority will fall on deaf ears, of course. The authority will claim its independence from “political interference” and continue on its path of autocratic insolence.

And, in short order, we’ll be hearing that Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis has been given yet another ridiculously large bonus and pay raise for her work.

Count it all as among the things that should outrage everyone but, in the end, that no one will do anything about.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).