‘Odoriferousness de Skunk’ at Airport Authority?

‘Odoriferousness de Skunk’ at Airport Authority?

“We all know that travel is coming back, and that this is still the right project for this region.”

Those are the words of Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, as reported by the authority’s in-house public relations arm, Blue Sky News, on Feb. 1.

She of course is referring to the $1.1 billion (and sure to grow) “Terminal Modernization Program” at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT).

The project, which has its share of commonsense skeptics (that we’re sure the authority dismisses as nonsensical Doubting Thomases), has been delayed for the past year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Now is the time, the authority’s PR masters assert, “to move forward with the next phase of the Terminal Modernization Program (TMP), a bold plan to right-size facilities, reduce long-term costs and speed the region’s recovery.”

But not everybody shares Cassotis’ pollyannaish outlook. And Cassotis must not have seen the Jan. 29 Wall Street Journal story (among others of similar vein) headlined “Airline rebound isn’t on the horizon.”

That’s because Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the way business does business. Do remember, it is hardy business travel that subsidizes leisure travel.

But the pessimism of a growing number of analysts is that pre-pandemic business travel volumes – and those for leisure travel, too — might never return.

Nonetheless, cheerleaders at the Airport Authority continue to rah-rah-sis-boom-bah the terminal project.

“It’s time to move forward with making Pittsburgh International Airport work smarter for this community and with making a difference in the recovery of the region and industry,” Cassotis tells her house PR organ.

But as Jake Haulk, president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute, reminded for the umpteenth time just this past week (in Policy Brief Vol. 21, No. 5):

“The reality is that the region PIT serves has not been growing in step with the nation or other regions in terms of population and jobs.

“Absent a major hub carrier, passenger traffic at PIT is driven by the size and vibrancy of the local economy,” the Ph.D. economist says.

Simply put, the performance hasn’t been much to write home about. 

As a statement of fact (in which it hopes the public takes as an article of faith), the Airport Authority organ grinder says the terminal project will better serve passengers, fuel the region’s future development, lower long-term costs for airlines and, last but not least, “evoke the essence of Pittsburgh.”

But not if airlines now counting their losses in the billions (with a “b”) and growing don’t survive and/or continue to struggle with pandemic-induced tanked utilization.

Oh, and then there’s this:

While the Airport Authority had received renewed airline funding to continue the planning and design process, Cassotis acknowledges to her PR department that it still has yet to ink long-term agreements with the airlines “to proceed with $182 million worth of work that includes the early site construction projects and bid packages for structural steel (March), foundations (April) and underground utilities (May) for the new terminal, as well as other work.”

And if no agreements come? Ah, pay no attention to the millions of dollars already expended in yet another classic case of cart-before-horse government brilliance.

We’re not sure what that “essence of Pittsburgh” is. But if millions of dollars continue to be dumped into an already dubious PIT terminal project that becomes the region’s latest white elephant, that “essence” will become “Odoriferousness de Skunk.”

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