Pittsburgh International Airport

Airports going off the grid

Should airports go off the grid? Pittsburgh Int’l Airport – and others – think so.

Aerial view of Pittsburgh International Airport. Courtesy PIT Airport

Remember that 11-hour power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in December 2017?

The blackout canceled hundreds of flights, stranded thousands of passengers and cost Delta Airlines alone an estimated $50 million in lost business?

Since then power outages linked to everything from equipment failures, faulty wires and an explosion at an electric power station have disrupted operations at numerous airports.

The list includes Washington’s Reagan National Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, New York’s LaGuardia Airport, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA, Philadelphia International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

And just last Saturday, power at the New Orleans International Airport went out – twice – due to high winds associated with Tropical Storm Olga.

In addition to flight cancelations and delays, a celebratory open house for the new $1 billion terminal opening November 6 had to be postponed by a few hours.

Microgrids to the rescue?

During power outages at airports, generators and other forms of back-up power usually kick-in to power essential emergency lighting. But boarding, deplaning, airfield activity and the business of the airport often come to a standstill.

That’s just one reason Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) recently declared its intention to become the first major U.S. airport to create a self-sufficient energy system – or microgrid – using only energy sources (solar and natural gas) from its own property.

“After watching what happened in Atlanta and Los Angeles, I think every airport CEO across the country, and probably around the world, wondered if they were ready and prepared,” said PIT Airport CEO Christina Cassotis.

“Here the answer is yes, but we’d like to make sure we can continue to operate in any circumstance,” she said,

To that end, Pittsburgh International Airport plans to have its microgrid in place by 2021 to power the entire airport, including the airfield, the on-site Hyatt hotel, and a Sunoco station.

Power for PIT’s microgrid will be generated through the airport’s onsite natural gas wells and almost 8000 solar panels covering eight acres of the airport land. A connection to the traditional electrical grid will remain, but only as an option for emergency or backup power when needed.

“It has everything to do with resiliency and redundancy,” said Cassotis, “We wanted to make sure we could do everything with the assets we have to enhance the safety of the traveling public and ensure continued operations. As a bonus, we get to lower the cost of energy.”

Many military facilities, college campuses, hospital complexes, industrial parks, and other large institutions already have some sort of microgrid in place to ensure uninterrupted power.

In general, these systems are connected to existing grids but can disconnect and operate on their own with power from batteries, diesel-powered generators or, ideally, solar or another source of renewable power, said Craig Schiller, a Manager specializing in aviation at the global energy non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).

Detroit Metro Airport (DTW) already has a microgrid in place. Airports in Los Angeles, Denver, San Diego, Boston, Orange County, CA and elsewhere are now exploring and creating microgrids as well.

To help move the process along, early next year RMI will publish an airport microgrid toolkit funded by a $450,000 grant from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board.

Microgrids can give airports greater control over the energy they need and use and, in many cases, save airports money on energy costs, said RMI’s Schiller, “But the bottom line is maximizing an airport’s ability to meet its function.”

TWA Hotel is a microgrid island


Most microgrids are designed to connect to existing power grids.

But the 512-room TWA Hotel and conference center opened in May 2019 in the landmark Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport’s Terminal 5 is an “islanded microgrid” operating independently of New York City’s electric grid.

The hotel has its own 9,000-square-foot microgrid/cogeneration power plant on the roof, fueled by natural gas.

The plant generates all the electricity for the hotel campus and harvests waste heat from engines for hot water and other uses. A battery storage system helps with peak loads and backup.

“Think of it as a Tesla on the hotel’s roof,” said Tyler Morse, chief executive of MCR/Morse Development.


“The entire city and the airport could be down, but the hotel would still be operating, with people having cocktails at the bar,” said Mike Byrnes, Senior Vice President for Veolia North America, which has operators on duty 24/7 to operate and maintain the hotel’s microgrid.

Beyond ensuring that cocktails can continue to be served during a blackout, the TWA Hotel’s power plant will also contribute to the business’s bottom line.

Hotel developer Morse said the Con Edison electric bills would have cost $5 million per year. “The $15 million we spent to build the plant will be paid back in three years,” said Morse, “And we’ll be saving $4 million annually.”

Which should be enough to buy everyone a round of drinks, or three, in the lobby bars in the next New York City blackout.

(My story about Airport Microgrids first appeared on CNBC in a slightly different version.)

Now 3 airports offer gate passes to non-ticketed passengers

Another airport invites non-ticketed passengers to hang and visit

You can do it a Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) and you can do it at Tampa International Airport (TPA)

Now Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) will let you do it too.

Detroit Metro Airport now allows non-ticketed passengers to spend time on the post-security side of both the McNamara and North terminals.

The “DTW Destination Pass” program allows non-flying ing guests to come to the airport to shop, eat, check out the art, planes pot, people watch, escort a friend or family to their gate or be there when a loved deplanes. 

“The new regulations allow us to expand our gate pass program that already exists for our Westin hotel guests,” said Wayne County Airport Authority CEO Chad Newton in a statement, “Now we can welcome more community members into our home to create memorable moments—from watching planes to greeting family and friends.”

DTW’s Destination Pass program isn’t permanent (yet) but is being piloted through the holidays with an end date of January 5, 2020.

Here’s how it works:

From Tuesday through Sunday, up to 75 non-ticketed passengers will be able to enter the secure side of both DTW terminals from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Visitors will need to apply for a pass through the DTW website the day before their planned visit. Applicants will get an email notification letting them know if the application has been approved. If approved, detailed instructions will be sent electronically.  

Pass holders will need to go through the same security screening as all other passengers going through the security checkpoints. During peak checkpoint times, passengers heading to flights will get priority over pass holders at the checkpoints.  

After their visit, pass holders will be asked to fill out a survey.

When the pilot program is done, “Wayne County Airport Authority will be evaluating the use of the program, along with the airport’s cost to provide this service. We will also be reviewing the completed participant surveys,” said airport spokeswoman Lisa Gass.

Other airports invite non-ticketed visitors as well

While DTW’s Destination Pass is being piloted, the gate-pass programs at Pittsburgh International Airport and Tampa International Airport are permanent.

Pittsburgh International Airport kicked off the trend with the “myPIT Pass” program in August 2017. The program operates Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Non-ticketed passengers may apply for a pass by showing a U.S. government-issued photo ID at a special counter in the terminal.

Tampa International Airport (TPA) introduced its TPA All Access Pass in April 2019. TPA’s pass allows non-ticketed guests who apply at least 24 hours in advance to visit one of four airside areas of the airport each Saturday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is a limit of 25 people per airside.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) tested a gate-pass program for a few weeks during the 2018 holiday season and had 1,1650 people take advantage of the program. The decision to bring back the program on a temporary or permanent basis is still under review.

According to Transportation Security Administration spokesperson Lorie Dankers, before any airport can offer a gate-pass program to non-ticketed fliers, the airport must submit a formal proposal to the TSA to amend the local airport security plan. If TSA approves the plan, an airport is permitted to invite non-ticketed passengers past security.

So perhaps we’re seeing the beginning of a trend.

(My story about airport gate passes first appeared on USA TODAY in a slightly differing form.)

Travel Tidbits for trains, planes and cars

Oktoberfest at Pittsburgh International Airport

Oktoberfest kicks off at Pittsburgh International Airport this Friday with live oompah tunes, classic German brews and dishes, complimentary pretzel bites and more.

Starting at 4 p.m. on Friday Grammy-nominated accordionist Kevin Solecki will be playing oompah tunes in the Center Core.

And throughout the month, the classic German brews at the airport’s Penn Brewery will include Great American Beer Festival medalists, Penn Oktoberfest and Penn Gold. On the menu will be classic dishes like Bavarian Pretzels with German Obatzda dip, Wurst Baguette on a Pretzel Roll and the German Reuben Sandwich.

More Oktoberfest parties are planned at PIT during the weekends of Sept. 20-22 and 27-29.

Amtrak’s BOGO sale

Amtrak has extended its Buy One Get One (BOGO) Saturday companion fare sale for destinations in the Northeast.

The sale applies to tickets booked on Saturday trips on either the Acela service in business class or Northeast Regional service in coach. (Three day advance purchase required).

These trains have stops in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Rhode Island and Richmond, Virginia. Use the discount code “C222.”

Rather drive?

The premium rental car brand Silvercar by Audi has partnered up with activewear brand Outdoor Voices in Austin to offer renters a cool deal.

Now through October, all Silvercar by Audi rentals at the Austin location come with Outdoor Voices apparel, a “Doing Things” local guide and a discount good for $100 off a purchase of $250 or more at Outdoor Voices.

Should an airport be named for a city or a celebrity?

City or celebrity? Branding goals fuel airport name changes

Louisville, Kentucky is well known for bourbon, the Kentucky Derby and Louisville Slugger baseball bats.

It’s also the city the late, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali called home.

In his honor, Louisville International Airport (SDF) was recently renamed Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport and a new logo honoring The Champ and his famous praise, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was adopted.

In addition to honoring a native son, the airport name change is expected bring economic benefits to Louisville and both built on and boost Ali-related tourism to the city.

“Even three years after our city’s most famous son’s passing, Louisville continues to see people coming from across the globe to discover and trace Ali’s legacy,” Karen Williams, President and CEO of Louisville Tourism said in a statement, “The airport rebranding supports current marketing efforts to engage in Ali’s ‘Footsteps of Greatness’ as a reason to inspire visitation to Louisville.”

Location, Location, Location

While Louisville added the name of a local icon to its airport’s name, other airports are moving away from celebrity names in favor of stronger geographic branding.

In 2016, the Allegheny County Airport Authority declined to change the name of Pittsburgh International Airport to the Fred Rogers International Airport.

 An online petition seeking to honor the late star of the locally produced “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” PBS TV program was signed by more than 15,000 supporters. But airport representatives said vacation planners were more likely to search online for “Pittsburgh Airport” than for “Fred Rogers.”

In southern California, regional Bob Hope Airport (BUR) is now Hollywood Burbank Airport.

The switch came in 2017 after airport officials realized that while the general public knew that the late Bob Hope was a comedian, few outside the region knew the airport was so located so close to Hollywood and many top Los Angeles-area attractions.

“Some thought the airport was in Palm Springs,” said airport spokeswoman Lucy Burghdorf, “Others thought it was in Vietnam,” because Hope had hosted annual USO Christmas tours to entertain troops during much of the Vietnam War.

To help solve BUR’s identity problem, “We studied what other airports had done and why,” said Michael Fiore, cofounder and chief brand officer of the Anyone Collective, “And for the most part we found the same answers: those with a geographic identifiers attached to them were performing better than others.”

The name-change, coupled with branding and marketing efforts that include everything from new signage at the airport and on highways to online advertising, has garnered the airport national awards and, more importantly, more passengers, said Fiore.

Some other airports have gently tweaked their names in the interest of better branding.

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL) was renamed St. Louis Lambert International Airport in February 2017. The move was made “to improve marketing positions locally and globally while also expanding connections with the St. Louis region,” according to the airport’s strategic plan.

And Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport (MKE) now uses the brand name Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport.

“This decision was made to better identify our geographical location to travelers who are not from this region,” said MKE spokesman Harold Mester, “Our new brand adds the name of our anchor city while still honoring our namesake, Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who is considered to be the father of the U.S. Air Force.”

Next up may be Connecticut’s Bradley International Airport .

“As we continue to market the airport in international and west coast markets, we have found that these populations are challenged to locate us,” said Kevin A. Dillon, Executive Director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, “Accordingly, we are undergoing a review to be completed by the end of the year to determine if it is feasible to change the airport name, and, if so, how we can continue to preserve the memory of Eugene Bradley at the airport.”

Bucking the Trend 

While the benefits of geographic branding are convincing some airports to change or tweak names, at least one airport is bucking the trend.

In 2017, the Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT) changed the name of Honolulu International Airport (HNL) to the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

The much-beloved Inouye served as Hawaii’s first representative in Congress in 1959 and went on to represent the Aloha State in both the House and Senate for a combined 53 years.

This is the fourth name change in the airport’s history, notes HDOT.

When it opened in 1927, HNL was named the John Rodgers Airport. After surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1947 the airport was renamed Honolulu Airport. “International” was added to the name in 1951.

It is too soon to tell if the name change will boost the local economy or increase tourism to Honolulu. But HDOT pegs the cost of new signage, parts, materials, labor and other tasks associated with this latest name change at one million dollars.

What do you think? Should an airport be named for a city or a celebrity?

Airport amenity test: self-driving wheelchairs + collision-alert suitcases

Here’s are some tools that may prove helpful in airports and other spaces.

Self-driving wheekchairs

Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) and the Panasonic Corporation are testing self-driving electric wheelchairs at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (NRT).

The wheelchairs are designed to navigate the airport independently.

As they move, they detect and avoid people and obstacles. And that could make them a useful mobility solution for passengers heading to connecting flights a ong distances away; a common issue in many sprawling international airports.

For the test, the wheelchairs will follow a leader to a common destination, with a staff person on hand to serve as a guide.

Smart luggage

What about their luggage?

Perhaps the self-navigating wheelchairs might be paired with self-driving suitcases or the smart suitcase being developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

Their smart suitcase is designed with blind users in mind and both helps to clear the way and warn of impending collisions. The researchers are also working on a wayfinding smartphone app to help people with visual disabilities navigate airport terminals.

The rolling suitcase sounds alarms (beeps) when users are headed for a collision with a pedestrian. The navigation app provides users with turn-by-turn audio instructions on how to reach a departure gate, a restroom or a restaurant.

Both proved effective in a pair of user studies conducted recently at PIT airport.

The smart suitcase, called BBeep, has a camera for tracking pedestrians in the user’s path.

“A [standard] rolling suitcase can help clear the way and can serve as an extended sensing mechanism for identifying changes in floor texture,” say project researchers. With its camera and system of beeps, “BBeep can also sound an alarm when collisions are imminent — both warning the user and alerting people in the area, enabling them to make room. “

Sound promising?