While many US airports languish in forever-planning cycles and political battles, one airport is showing that there’s a better way to do just about everything. Report by Michael Miller, Orlando
Quick, name an airport that is completely self-sustaining and off the energy grid. The unlikely – and correct – answer is Pittsburgh International Airport. The airport and its maverick chief executive are setting a new standard for what is possible when the community is part of every project.
During the pandemic, Pittsburgh International CEO Christina Cassotis and her team have managed to break ground on a new terminal that will remake the airport, in addition to completing a no-cost solar field and natural gas generators that provide energy to all airport buildings and a nearby Hyatt hotel.
As if that were not enough, a cargo surge that included new arrivals Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways coincided with a planned new cargo facility that will soon be built. It benefits from Pittsburgh’s geographic location four hours west of New York and close to many major Midwestern population centres.
In many ways, Pittsburgh is redefining what it is to be an airport. Its initiatives take advantage of its large 8,800-acre land footprint. Among developments during the 2020-2021 pandemic, the gateway:
– Incorporated local leaders and companies in everything
– Wove public input into its new US$1.4 billion terminal
– Paid off all debt before undertaking its new terminal project
– Teamed up with a local utility to build an on-airport solar farm at zero cost to the airport
– Took the airport off the grid, saving significant sums
– Green-lit a new cargo facility with access to three railroad lines and the second-largest inland port
– Used its massive spread of land to bring in new technology visionaries
– Created a local feedback loop to ensure the region is involved and supportive
Pittsburgh International will use local companies and expertise, led by internationally renowned architect Gensler + HDR in association with Luis Vidal + Architects, to build a $1.4 billion new terminal, complete with new roadways, parking, and road infrastructure. “We’re going to build on a greenfield site while normal operations are going on,” said Cassotis, whose contract was recently extended to 2025.
The 700,000 square-foot terminal will open in early 2025 and will include airport operations, consolidated airline operations, ticketing, baggage claim, security, concessions, new roadway infrastructure and parking. Once the new terminal opens, the old one it will be demolished unless a viable use can be found for it. The airport intends to comply with LEED Silver Environmental Product Declaration for building materials. Concessionaires will be encouraged to source items regionally and include sustainability criteria in their bids.
The airport’s original hub structure had 100 gates, though only 35-40 are used today. The new terminal will have 51 gates with the ability to expand.
The half-mile space between the terminal and gates today is connected by an underground train that is both loved and hated by locals. That train and its infrastructure cost, along with eight miles of baggage belts, will disappear when the new terminal is built. It will be replaced with a Pennsylvania hills – and bridges – inspired complex.
“It’s going to feel like you’re in Pittsburgh,” Cassotis said.
Local tech leadership
The new terminal will reflect the rising development of several technology centres – many of which Cassotis says are unknown outside the region.
“In most airports, you don’t have any sense of place. There are areas of this country that are leaders in tech where airports don’t reflect [their location] at all. You don’t land in certain communities and feel like, ‘wow, I get it’ right away.
“If you think about Pittsburgh as the robotics capital of the world because of all the investments… it’s because there was a deliberate intentional strategy to build out a robotics industry,” she said. There are “80 to 100 robotics companies headquartered here – but people don’t know that. How do we make sure that it shows up right at the airport?”
One answer is that in 2020, Pittsburgh was the first airport in the US to implement robotic floor scrubbers that use UV light to disinfect.
“When we hired the design team [from Gensler and Luis Vidal], we actually brought them to Pittsburgh for four days, and put them through an immersion programme. They met with heads of foundations and heads of universities and people showed up. Gensler came up with a term ‘Natecco‘ – nature, technology, community – to describe what they designed,” said Cassotis. Airlines will welcome the new terminal, not only because it replaces the 1980s US Airways-inspired hub, but because it will be more efficient and cost per enplanement is expected to remain steady at the current $10-12 per passenger rate.
Everybody on board
Cassotis’ include-everyone attitude is key to bringing so much of PIttburgh’s progress to life. More than six years into her CEO tenure, Cassotis cites the rare airport-community ties as core to every success. “Once I met people in the community and saw how engaged they were and how invested they were in the airport’s success, this is why I wanted the job,” she said.
Pittsburgh had been reeling from a major loss. The airport’s history includes eastern-US focused US Air pushing it to build a new terminal, creating a major hub – only to go bankrupt and shutter the hub in 2004, cutting hundreds of daily flights. The airline cancelled leases in bankruptcy without any notice to the airport.
But: “We are not looking back anymore,” Cassotis said. “If you look at a lot of other airport communities, the airports are taken for granted, or people are complaining about the noise or the traffic,” she stated. Pittsburgh leaders all came forward to help chart the future of transportation in the city. “There was very much a sense of ‘how do we do better and how can we help you?’,” she said. “By the time we got to the master plan, there was no question people were going to show up. It was like, wow!”
How the airport communicates to all partners has always been key to Cassotis’ management style. “To get more flights, you have to get everyone on board. To drive that type of transformational change… you need to explain what you’re doing, over and over again, and you have to talk about ‘why’ and then you have to celebrate success,” she said.
When bees swarmed parts of the airport in recent years, they were not exterminated. Instead, the airport built three apiaries and brought in a certified beekeeper from Meadow Sweet Apiaries to maintain them pro bono, and the company sells the honey as a bonus.
Using the land
The Western Pennsylvania region is a robotics hub and is quickly becoming the self-drive car technology corridor of the US. It has also attracted advanced manufacturing companies. The airport is creating several different centres of excellence on airport property to spur innovation. A new 195-acre site with the smooth name ‘Neighborhood 91’ has already lured advanced 3D printing leaders such as Wabtec and Arencibia. The intention is to put every aspect of 3D printing in one area, whereas in other regions of the US this advanced manufacturing segment is scattered.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was selected in September 2021 as the new corporate headquarters of self-driving car company Aurora, a $13 billion success story that joins Google and Argo AI for building and testing self-driving technology in Pittsburgh. One week following Aurora’s announcement, Pittsburgh hosted the first meeting of the US-EU Trade and Technology Council, which included US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The airport’s biggest success might be its sustainability. Pittsburgh International is completely powered by a solar field and five natural gas generators that sit not far from one of its four runways. Built at no cost to the airport under an agreement with Peoples Natural Gas, the microgrid generates 23MW of electricity. The airport uses 14MW and has first right of refusal for all energy generated on site. Peoples sells the rest to others. The current plan is to double the 9,360 solar panels on site.
Lower carbon and costs
“I’m convinced that we are the first airport in the world to be completely off the grid, site hardened [protected against power outages]. We reduced our carbon footprint, reduced our cost of energy and therefore lowered our cost of operating to our airline partners, because that is always our first concern,” Cassotis said. “We also ensured resiliency and redundancy in the national transportation infrastructure. “Now we get to promote solar and clean energy also,” she said. Natural gas, which is also drilled under airport property, brings in several million dollars each year.
When asked to identify her biggest success, Cassotis quickly said “the team, no question”. The airport has had 45% staff turnover in six years. “I think that’s a success. It’s a success that 55% of the people are exactly the right people and we’ve been able to attract the right talent. Now we’re doing things that I didn’t even imagine. If you get the right people, you can actually do anything.”
What Cassotis learned from travelling the world as an airport consultant before taking the Pittsburgh CEO role is that “the governance structure of US airports prevented innovation and creativity. Lots of people could wait out a director, protect a pension, and actually not get rewarded for taking a risk. Whereas what I saw was possible in some airports that had private investment or private boards, [or where] infrastructure funds who were holding management teams accountable and the overall business objectives that actually benefitted the community and the passenger.”
She added: “My reason for taking this job was to see if we can do it here. Could we get at the intersection of public utility and going concern? Is that possible in the US? That’s the thesis that I’ve been proving. If you hire the right people you can build a team that actually makes a difference. I hope that the micro-grid gets repeated again and again. Why not?
“The reason that European investors are dying to privatise US airports is because they see there’s so much value being left on the table, and they don’t understand it,” Cassotis said. “Everything I learned, from Singapore to Amsterdam to London to some of the newer greenfield facilities in China, [indicated] that if you’re a hub airport, the value that you’re bringing to a community is over and above what an O&D [origin and destination] airport can deliver, because you have connecting passengers that are (contributing to employment) over and above what O&D can support,” she said.
“We are a case in point. OK, the hub is gone, how do we redefine success that doesn’t rely on us being a hub? The opposite of a hub is not ‘not a hub’; it’s us being a strong origin and destination airport. Oh, and by the way, we have 8,800 acres and we sit on top of the Marcellus Shale” with large natural gas reserves, she added. The airport also receives gaming revenue from nearby gambling. “The gaming revenue is a life saver when you think about bond payments over the years after US Air left,” Cassotis said. Gaming plus natural gas revenues total $25-30 million every year.
Quick footwork during pandemia
The airport did suffer during the pandemic, and the team pulled together overnight. New policies were formed in 24 hours. “We split into two teams. I didn’t see the CFO in 16 months except on Zoom,” Cassotis noted. “We couldn’t have the entire leadership team getting Covid, so we split in two.”
Cassotis led three calls every Wednesday for nine months: 1100, 1530 and 2300 “I told people everything I knew, and we answered questions. We parked 100 planes on a runway and taxiways, opened our parking lots to food banks and asked how could we help the community. We shut down systems and cut $10 million out of the budget instantly. Projects kept moving. We hired during the pandemic. We did great things here and I’m proud of it,” she said.
While there are many US airport CEO positions available now and in the near future, Cassotis states unequivocally that she is not interested. “I’ve been recruited [head-hunted] for many of them. Tell me how it’s going to be better [anywhere else]. It’s a dream team here,” she said, citing great local relationships and a board that is “truly a partner” and adding, “I know that there is no place in this country where an airport leader gets the support I do.”
Next steps will reveal themselves. “There’s more to do, because of the land. What should we be doing with the way transportation is going to look in 20 years?” Cassotis said. “How do we make sure we create the right kind of urban development master plan? We’ve looked at all of it.”