Pittsburgh International Airport

Airports, airplanes & Alexander Calder

Courtesy Calder Foundation

July 22 was artist Alexander Calder’s birthday, giving us an excuse to share some photos of his work in airports and on airplanes.

The photo above is of Calder in 1957 inspecting the installation of his work originally titled .125, after the gauge of the aluminum elements in Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport (then Idlewild Airport). The piece was later redubbed Flight.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) also has a work by Alexander Calder in its collection. This piece is titled, appropriately enough, Pittsburgh.

Courtesy Pittsburgh International Airport

Calder’s work also appeared on Braniff International Airways airplanes in the mid-1970s.

The first was a Douglas DC-8 known as Flying Colors of South America. The second was a Boeing 727-200 named Flying Colors of the United States.

Courtesy of the Calder Foundation

To learn more about the airplanes Calder painted for Braniff, see this article from 2020 by Chris Sloan in Airways Magazine.

Pittsburgh Int’l Airport goes off the grid

A few years ago, there were some major power outages at airports that wreaked havoc with air travel in those regions.

The list of airports affected was not inconsequential.

Power outages and equipment failures affected Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), Washington’s Reagan National Airport (DCA), and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

New York’s LaGuardia Airport also got hit. And so did John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA, Philadelphia International Airport, and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. New Orleans International Airport lost power twice due to high winds associated with Tropical Storm Olga.

And in response, some airports moved ahead with plans to go off the grid and create their own independent electricity sources, or microgrids.

Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) was one of those airports. And in 2019 PIT declared its intention to become the first major U.S. airport to create a self-sufficient energy system – or microgrid. Their plan includes using only energy sources (solar and natural gas) from its own property.

PIT made good on its promise and this week, becoming the first airport in the world to be completely powered by natural gas and solar energy from its own, now-live microgrid.

Crews started construction in July 2020 and completed the project on schedule even as the pandemic stalled the aviation industry last year.

The power generated at PIT by its microgrid is now the primary power supply for the entire airport.

This includes the terminals, the airfield, a Hyatt hotel, and a Sunoco station. The microgrid will generate power from onsite natural gas wells and 9,360 solar panels across eight acres.

The airport remains connected to the traditional electrical grid as an option for emergency or backup power if needed.

We are declaring this our Airport Amenity of the Week.

Airports Hope for Infrastructure Help

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)

When low-cost carrier Avelo Airlines launched the first of 11 new routes to small cities and secondary airports from 14-gate Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR) in April, it raised the airport’s profile as an alternative to Los Angeles International. And put a spotlight on BUR’s outdated facilities

“The existing terminal is too close to the runways and taxiways,” explains BUR executive director Frank Miller, “And the building is now 91 years old.” A terminal replacement plan put on hold due to COVID-19 is back on track. But funding sources for this – and for other airport infrastructure projects around the country – are “simply inadequate,” says Miller.

Even before the pandemic and the sharp decline in air travel, “chronic underfunding” created a backlog of more than $115 billion in necessary infrastructure needs for just the next five years, according to a study by Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) released in March.

“We’re trying to build 21st century airports,” says Kevin Burke, ACI-NA’s president and chief executive office, “But we have 20th century airports that are, on average, more than 40 years old.” 

Will infrastructure funds help?

That is why airports continue pushing for an increase to one of the main ongoing infrastructure funding mechanisms for airports – the federally capped user fee on tickets known as the Passenger Facility Charge. That fee was last raised from $3 to $4.50 twenty years ago, before 9/11.

And it is why all eyes are on the $25 billion line item for airports in the Biden Administration’s infrastructure plan being hammered out in Washington, D.C.

The proposal includes $10 billion to supplement the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), $10 billion for terminal redevelopment and intermodal transit connections, and $5 billion to replace and modernize Federal Aviation Administration equipment.

ACI-NA’s study says that instead of investing in large, high-impact projects to modernize facilities and increase capacity, “airports have been forced to prioritize smaller, immediate needs like maintenance of aging structures and systems.” And now there are “tens of billions of dollars in additional projects that have been delayed or canceled due to the pandemic and economic recession.”

Projects on, Projects off

For example, during 2020, Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) deferred $96 million in construction projects. And in April 2020, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) announced the postponement of a $1B renovation project for Terminal 3 West, where United Airlines operates. That project is still on hold, says airport spokesman Doug Yakel, “Although we will be revisiting the timeline for this project later this year.” 

During the pandemic, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) put the $3 billion, 24-gate Terminal F project on pause. But it pressed ahead with some other major projects, including the accelerated reconstruction of an arrival runway, the opening of the four-gate Terminal D South extension of the international terminal, and the construction of a new operations center.

“We continued the work because it was important to the airport,” explains DFW CEO Sean Donohue. “But the projects were also important to the region. During the peak of all that work it created 4,000 construction jobs.”

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Portland International Airport (PDX), Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), and Kansas City International Airport (KCI) are some other airports that moved forward with major construction work during the pandemic. In some cases, completing projects ahead of schedule and with some cost savings thanks to reduced traffic in and around the terminals.

And Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), which put a hold on it $1.1 billion terminal project in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was able to restart that project in February 2021.

“The pandemic really highlighted the need for our Terminal Modernization Project,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport. “We’ll be the first airport in the country built from the ground up in a post-pandemic world and that’s given us the chance to include public health as a key component of the design.”

Next steps?

Despite the summer bump in travel, passenger traffic and the revenue it brings to airports is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.

ACI-NA estimates airports will lose at least $40 billion through March 2022 and even more if passenger traffic stays depressed. That makes finding funding for all the needed airport infrastructure projects more important.  

The funds needed for short and long-term capital improvement projects at US airports far exceed the amounts in any of the proposed federal packages. “But the reality is that as things get back to normal and some level of funding is agreed to, you’ll see a lot more cranes, and a lot more work that will everyone,” says ACI-NA’s Burke.

“That includes communities, airports, the trades and, of course, passengers.”

Travel Tidbits heading into the weekend

Louisville Airport welcomes Kentucky Derby fans

The Kentucky Derby will take place on schedule this year on Saturday, May 1 and Louisville Muhammad International Airport (SDF) is decked out and ready to welcome Derby guests with lots of fresh roses.

PHX has COVID-19 shots

Airports everywhere are continuing their “keep clean things clean” campaigns. Touchless tech helps, and we see Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) just added touchess/wave-to-call elevator buttons.

Places We’d Go… Cleveland

Cleveland is hosting the NFL Draft, with lots of bonus activities.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has a new exhibit celebrating the Super Bowl Halftime Show music and performers.

The Biggest Show on Turf: 55 Years of Halftime Shows will be on exhibit through September 21 and includes performance outfits, instruments, and set pieces, including Prince’s turquoise suit worn during his unforgettable purple-rained 2007 performance, where he asked production managers “Can you make it rain harder?” and Katy Perry’s beach-ball inspired costume and “Left Shark” that ignited a pop culture phenomenon after her 2015 performance.