taking flight

I enjoy flying. In 2019 I flew twice to Hong Kong, as well as Princeton (via Newark), New York, and Madrid. However, I grounded myself in early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For over a year, I barely even drove anywhere. Except for a quick trip to Washington County for a propane heater, I did not venture beyond the city limits of Pittsburgh until June 2021, when we enjoyed a weekend with extended family in West Virginia.

After everyone in the family was fully vaccinated, I started to spread my wings. Last July we drove cross-country. In August I flew back from Las Vegas, and traveled there again in October and December. We did cancel our winter flights to Barcelona and from Lisbon because we thought it might be difficult returning to the US if we tested for the infectious omicron variant. Still, I have now flown every month in 2022: from Vegas in January; Chicago in February; Ole Miss (via Memphis) and Vegas again in March; Atlanta in April. I anticipate being in the air at least once more this summer.

While I do enjoy flying, I enjoy having flown even more. Despite TSA PreCheck, security theater can be annoying. Despite lounge access, connections in large airports can be stressful. Despite online maps, navigating unfamiliar public transportation systems can be taxing.

So it’s good to come to Pittsburgh International. Yes, it’s a familiar airport but this is not me being a homer — PIT is modest-sized, rarely crowded apart from TSA, the moving sidewalks and other facilities always operate smoothly, the corridors are spacious, and the lounge couldn’t be more convenient. Although I might wish it were closer to the East End (the 28X takes an hour) and that it had a greater number of cheaper flights, overall this facility is tied with Albuquerque as my favorite airport in the country.

So why does Pittsburgh need a new terminal

PIT TMP DDRender Arrivals2 1200x850

Yes, this construction supports jobs. But what are the actual benefits as a passenger? The “terminal modernization program” website lists:

  • Increasing the main security checkpoint area
  • Reducing the time it takes to get from curbside to airside by 50 percent
  • Increasing area for concessions and retail
  • Increasing covered parking by 3x the amount of current spots
  • Reducing the time it takes to get from International Arrivals to curbside by 67 percent
  • A dedicated Ground Transportation Center
  • One Meeter/Greeter location for less confusion
  • Only one level change from curb to gates

A billion dollars for this? The security checkpoint doesn’t need to become larger — it just needs to clear people faster. The time from curbside to airside is already rapid — from the moment I deplane, even from the farthest gate it’s less than ten minutes to the bus stop. We don’t need more concessions and retail; the stores there get little foot traffic. We should be creating better access to the airport by public transit, not building more covered parking. The level change from curb to gates is already virtually unnoticeable. And so forth.

I’m unconvinced that “smart” baggage handling designed by Carnegie Mellon researchers will improve anything. Instead, I fully expect the technoglitter will prove as useful as pixie dust, and will in fact lead to less robust systems. While I try to avoid checking in luggage, I can report the baggage claim process is pretty fast. After all, we are talking about a small airport with few flights. I’d rather wait five more minutes for my bag, if I know that the system is reliable.

The airport as it stands was built to be a hub for US Airways, which soon afterwards abandoned the city. In some ways, the airport mirrors the city itself. Both have the infrastructure and amenities to serve a much larger population, which is an advantage for those of us who remain.

The new facility will have fewer gates, in a frank admission this airport did not become a hub and will not become one within my lifetime. The groundside terminal will be moved to nest within the crux formed by four wings. I suppose this will eliminate about a quarter of the gates.

PIT TMP DDRender Aerial 1200x850

Those gates weren’t being used anyway; again, the airport was built to be a hub, so it has way too much capacity.

But really now, what are we gaining for a billion dollars? Quicker transit time from curbside to airside (but this was already quite short), the elimination of the people mover (which, granted, might be difficult to maintain), and a greener facility with its own microgrid. 

I get it: there is economic incentive to create something new, even when the old system works perfectly fine for passengers. A flashy Big Project feeds egos, establishes reputations, and creates “lasting legacies.” Look at this Big Thing I Made (never mind the actual builders on site).

Higher education is riddled with similar incentives, producing similar results. If it’s not a new building with someone’s name, it’s a glossy new general education curriculum that can shine only after eliminating a program the students actually prefer.

At least the rendering of the interior depicts a bigger space, with better sightlines for Calder’s Pittsburgh. One billion dollars and, at long last, the city provides a suitable setting for that work of art.

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