Potemkin PIT?

Potemkin PIT?

So, what’s the Allegheny County Airport Authority’s strategy as one wave of coronavirus subsides in some parts of the country but ramps up anew in other parts and abroad?

As The Wall Street Journal reports, some analysts now are expecting depressed demand for air travel to last three to five years. That’s far above prognostications just last month of anything resembling “normal” air travel resuming in 2021.

“Some (analysts) also fear a permanent reduction in corporate business due to videoconferencing – a big problem for full-service carriers, which make almost their entire profit on premium cabins,” The Journal adds.

Not to mention tourist travel. Government restrictions, combined with travelers’ trepidations, could have a powerful tamping-down effect.

A supposedly “bright” spot for Pittsburgh International Airport is that British Airways says it hopes to resume its heavily subsidized direct flights to London on Aug. 2.

But there are far more question marks than guarantees.

As the Post-Gazette reminded, the coronavirus remains a major wild card. And British Airways is not in the best of financial shape because of it. The airline that is receiving $3 million in public subsidies over two years from the county Airport Authority (granted pre-pandemic) is considering whacking 12,000 jobs from its 42,000-person workforce, reports have it.

Then there’s American Airlines, the huge national player with flights at PIT, struggling under a massive debt load for the past seven years (post its merger with the old US Airways).

It’s certainly not the climate in which to attempt to proceed with a major terminal reconfiguration project – its necessity questioned even in pre-pandemic times — whose $1 billion-plus price tag has been guaranteed by Airport Authority officials to rise.

To what heights? Who knows.

Nonetheless, authority officials have more than intimated that despite the pandemic, the terminal project is more viable than ever, given the new terminal can be at the forefront of being configured to better deal with such outbreaks.

But it’s a crap-shoot and Catch-22 rolled into one.

The terminal project is to be funded by bonds designed to be paid off by landing and other fees the airlines pay to operate out of PIT. Then there are parking fees paid by the flying public, etc.

So, who’s going to buy such bonds in such a questionable climate of years of iffy airline income, monumental market changes and few having anything resembling a grasp of what the airline industry will even look like with a pandemic perpetually waiting at the gate?

“Pittsburgh deserves a smarter airport,” a PIT website touting the terminal project proclaims. It will be “more than a building,” instead “redefining what an airport can be,” goes the pitch.

But what Pittsburgh doesn’t deserve is a white elephant that, if planners miscalculate on a number of levels, stands to become a Potemkin Village.

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