The Return of Planespotting

Airports are drawing inspiration from the past as they modernize for the future

By Natalie Fiorilli

Published March 7, 2019

Read Time: 2 mins


The airport observation deck is making a comeback.

Once a favorite pastime in a bygone era, public observation decks are showing up in modernization plans at U.S. airports around the nation, including Pittsburgh International.

An outdoor observation deck is included in the concept design for PIT’s Terminal Modernization Program. In a survey of 2,000 residents conducted by the project, 63 percent identified connecting to nature and incorporating outdoor observation decks as important attributes for the new terminal.

“Our design team is focused on making sure the characteristics that are unique to Pittsburgh – like nature and community – are reflected in the new terminal,” said Paul Hoback, senior vice president of Engineering, Planning and Capital Development at PIT. “It truly will be an airport inspired by Pittsburgh and built for Pittsburgh.”

Other terminal upgrades to offer observation decks as an amenity are Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City and San Francisco International. SFO’s Terminal 1 redevelopment program, which is expected to be fully complete in 2022, will feature a deck pre-security in addition to its recently opened outdoor terrace in the airport’s International Terminal, according to airport spokesman Doug Yakel.

“We are always looking to develop features and amenities that surprise and delight our guests,” he said, “and creating an observation deck – or two – was a sentimental choice among our construction project team, many of whom recall first getting interested in aviation by coming out to SFO to watch airplanes.”

Airports that currently have decks to spot planes (before and after security) include Baltimore/Washington International, Dallas/Fort Worth and Charlotte Douglass, among others.

Ellen Little and her son enjoy the view from the observation deck at Greater PIT, circa 1971. (Courtesy of John Rourke)

For locals, including Ellen Little, who remember the days of PIT’S predecessor, Greater Pittsburgh International (1952-92), the return of an observation deck will be a pleasant surprise.

Little, originally from Pittsburgh’s North Side, recalls going out on the deck nearly every time she stopped by Greater PIT.

“At that time, it was the thing to do,” said Little. “We would actually go to the airport just to go out and watch what was going on – it was just one of the things that we did for fun.”

Until around 1980, Greater PIT actually had two observation decks open to the public to view takeoffs and landings. As the industry evolved and use of the airport changed, the decks went away. Then Greater PIT expanded to its current “Midfield Terminal,” Pittsburgh International.

Hoback said that even his mom has been asking him for years, “When will the airport build another observation deck?”

“Many people, myself included, fondly remember going to Greater PIT with their family and watching the planes,” said Hoback. “There’s just something exciting about being at an airport, and people want to be part of that.”

For more on PIT’s Terminal Modernization Program and to see its recently unveiled design concept, visit

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