Would you spend hours at the airport if you weren’t flying anywhere?
The answer comes easily to many Pittsburghers whose tradition of visiting the airport to watch planes, meet and greet passengers ,and shop and dine dates back to 1992, when Pittsburgh International inaugurated the airport-mall shopping concept.
Before that, many in the region visited the old airport (Greater PIT) to watch planes, meet and greet passengers, attend meetings and dine in the airport’s Horizon Room.
Those days ended in the sweeping changes after Sept. 11, 2001. But five years ago, PIT took the first steps to again allow non-flyers to be able to experience the community asset that is the airport. The concept of the Holiday Open House was born, which draws families and friends from around the region to shop, dine and explore the airside terminal, participate in free holiday activities and enjoy a day at the airport without the stress of actually flying.
More than 1,000 people have attended the Open House each year since it began in 2014, including 1,051 on Saturday.
“I’m excited to be back in the Airside Terminal without a plane ticket,” said Sherri Moss of Irwin, Pa., who attended the Open House with her niece McKenzie, 3, and nephew Logan, 5. “We went to lunch at TGI Friday’s and saw Santa, and now we’re waiting for the penguin. They love planes, and they are just excited to be here.”
Until recently, PIT was the only airport in the country that allowed public access beyond the security checkpoint. In September, the airport marked one year of its successful myPITpass pilot program where the TSA allows access from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The Holiday Open House was a forerunner to the myPITpass program, said Paul Hoback, senior vice president of Engineering, Planning and Capital Development.
“Opening up the Airside Terminal to the public was always on my mind because my mother used to bring me to the old airport when I was little,” Hoback said. “Airports are exciting places, and I think people, especially here in Pittsburgh, just want to be a part of that.”
Many people who attended the Open House said that they have never flown or fly very infrequently. Hoback said that’s part of the community’s interest in the Holiday Open House.
“I do think it’s a little different here … we have more meeters-and-greeters than other airports, and people want to come to the airport because they want to feel like they are part of the energy and excitement, even if they aren’t traveling,” he said.
While final sales figures have not been calculated, stores and restaurants typically see a bump each year, and the Open House helps boost the airport’s non-aeronautical revenue.
Pasquale Trello was sampling his company’s Pittsburgh-themed chocolates at the newly opened Pittsburgh Exchange in the Center Core. “The atmosphere is very festive, and people love anything related to the black and gold,” he said. “We’ve had a very good response today.”
From Airside art tours and children’s activities to live music by LoveBettie and the Pirates’ pierogi mascots, there was something for people of all ages to see, sample and do.
Lydia Burnett of Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh was helping kids make their own holiday cards and gift wrap right next to the National’s Aviary’s table, where two endangered African penguins were waddling around.
“It’s a really fun atmosphere, and everyone is happy,” she said. “We hope to come back next year.”
Mike Crawmer, a volunteer ambassador who was staffing the airport’s giveaway table along with volunteer Rhonda Harrison, said he decided to become a volunteer after attending the Holiday Open House last year.
“I love the ambiance of the airport during this event, and the people are really nice — it definitely gets you in the holiday spirit,” Harrison said.
With a balloon artist, play equipment, interactive displays and a perfect view of the airfield, Kidsport was the place to let the kids run around or sit and eat their free Happy Meals.
Luke Vasiladiotis of Bavington, Pa., attended with nine members of his family.
“It’s a great time for the kids to see Santa, and we love the balloon artist and live music,” he said. “We actually come out frequently for the myPITpass program because we love being at the airport.”
And of course, the event is always a draw for the airport’s favorite #AvGeeks, who follow progress on social media.
“I like to come and see all the changes and improvements,” said Justin Winslow, 15, of Hermitage, Pa. “Every year, there’s always something new, and I can’t wait to see what happens with the Terminal Modernization Program and the new terminal.”
Others like Russ Baron of Green Tree, Pa., complimented the format and organization of the event.
“It’s fantastic – well-organized, well-staffed — and there wasn’t a crush of people at the start time,” he said.
Click here for more photos from the Holiday Open House.