The PIT question looms larger

The PIT question looms larger

The coronavirus-related woes of Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) were yet again detailed in an informative Post-Gazette dispatch on Thursday. But it forces us yet again to ask a basic question.

The piece, by veteran reporter Mark Belko, documented how the typical 13,000 travelers on any given day at PIT was, Tuesday last, a mere 400.

The Findlay Township airport is described as a “ghost town.” In a bit of hyperbole, it’s noted that the facility’s parking lots are so empty, jetliners could be landed there. And Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, states the blunt bottom line:

“We have watched our business fall off a cliff in a matter of weeks,” she told the P-G. And that’s no hyperbole.

What Cassotis refers to as the “extended post-9/11 feel” also has delayed the $1.1 billion (at least) PIT modernization project, touted as an absolute necessity by backers but viewed with a suspicious eye by some in both the aviation and architectural worlds.

Site work was to begin in April. But that’s been postponed indefinitely. And as Jake Haulk, president emeritus of the Allegheny Institute, posited in a recent white paper, it’s a valid to ask if the project ever will get off the ground because of the financial positions, some said to be dire, of the airlines.

Whether the authority could even find a buyer for the necessary bonds to finance the project also has become a big “if.” Some airline industry analysts say the severe truncation of flights nationwide could last into September.

And what if, as some health experts have cautioned, another round of coronavirus infection breaks out in the autumn?

But the simple fact of the matter remains that, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Airport Authority did not have signed lease agreements with the airlines. Yet, it plowed ahead with design and contract-letting.

For the umpteenth time, we are forced to ask: What was the prudence of that?

And will that initial imprudence – if not impudence to sound public policy – be whitewashed with the coronavirus as the paint brush?

The PIT project largely was conceived in the dark. Public input was largely limited to what kind of decorative accoutrements should be incorporated into the new facility. Then it was advanced with unsigned, unsealed and undelivered lease agreements with the airlines – the same airlines supposedly paying the lion’s share of the costs.

The bureaucrats might insist that this “is how business is done.” More’s the pity. But the greater pity will be if the public allows the Airport Authority to use the pandemic as a cover for its pre-pandemic failures.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (