Blawnox Boy Makes Good

After 40 years on the job, Richard Belotti contemplates life without planning

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Published May 10, 2019

Read Time: 4 mins

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Richard Belotti has always had an eye for detail, and it has served him well over the years as vice president of planning for Pittsburgh International Airport.

Take 1990. Belotti was preparing for what was expected to be a contentious public meeting about the airport’s noise abatement program. Reviewing a hand-drawn map of the area, he noticed that the boundaries most affected by airport noise were outlined with red tape.

He decided to replace the red tape with blue.

“He knew this was a touchy situation and that red tape may give an impression that the noise was worse than it really was,” said Tracey Cullen, the airport’s director of planning. “It sounds small, but it was spot on. Details can make all the difference.”

Belotti’s career has spanned four decades and countless projects, from master plans, environmental improvements, terminal renovations, signage – the list goes on and on. On Friday, May 10, he retired after 39 years on the job.

It all began in 1980. Not long after graduating from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., Belotti quickly moved from a job in airport operations to working on special assignments for David L. Donahoe, who was then director of the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

One of his first projects was constructing a children’s play area.

“David had this idea and he had me call other airports to see if any of them were doing anything like this,” Belotti said. “People from other airports were laughing, saying it was going to be an insurance nightmare. But I went back to David and told him, and he said, ‘I don’t know. This still feels right. Let’s do it.’”

What followed in 1983 was Kidsport, the country’s first airport play area.

A master at planning

Belotti has seen the good times and lean times. The new terminal opened in 1992, but less than a decade later passenger traffic began to slow. A low point came in 2004, when PIT lost its hub status with US Airways, and airport administrators began cutting back.

Through it all, Belotti still was required to complete master plan studies under FAA rules, but those and other plans never saw the light of day.

That all changed early in 2015.

“Richard was one of the first people here who understood what we were working on,” said Christina Cassotis, who became CEO in January of that year. Still, she said, it took time for her to convince him just how serious she was about taking giant steps into the future.

“When I got here, Richard was working on the master plan that only included one option for the future. That’s because so many other plans were never started,” she said. “Then he said to me, ‘If you want to see plans, I have a ton of plans sitting on my shelf.’”

That master plan, completed in 2017, morphed into the airport’s Terminal Modernization Program, expected to open in 2023.

Just like under Donahoe, Belotti realized the planning he was doing under Cassotis had a purpose. Renovations to the airside transit level were first. That was quickly followed by sprucing up baggage claim, Kidsport, the international gates on Concourse C and many other improvements.

“I’ve been very fortunate to start and end my career with great leaders – people who weren’t afraid to take risks and had trust in their employees,” he said.

“Richard is a designer who became a planner,” Cassotis said. “He understands color and passenger and traffic flow. He knows and understands all the properties of design.”

Belotti began his career with the airport in 1980, and handled projects including master plans, terminal renovations, and the ‘Art in the Airport’ program. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Planning imitates art

The seeds of those talents may have been planted as a student, when the Blawnox native would spend Saturdays attending art classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland and then at Carnegie Mellon University when he was in high school.

In addition to helping Belotti as a planner, those classes paid dividends for the thousands of art lovers who pass through the airport. After taking over PIT’s Arts in the Airport program, Belotti increased its budget and helped it flourish.

“Richard is one of the best leaders I have ever worked for,” said Rachel Rearick, PIT’s arts and culture manager, who joined the staff in early 2018. “He is very inclusive and open to new ideas. Very early on he came to me and told me not to get disheartened by how things move slowly at times. He’s been a source of great guidance.”

There will be lots of time now for Belotti’s other loves: the beach; his great nephews, Dylan and Levi, and great niece Breanna. But mostly, he is going to dedicate more time to one of his first loves – the arts.

“I’m going to learn to play the ukulele,” he said with a laugh and a smile that nevertheless tells you he’s not kidding. (There is no laugh or smile when asked if he will learn how to sing.)

Now he’ll probably only come to the airport to catch a flight to Sanibel Island, Fla., or visit family in North Carolina.  But Belotti’s influence will be reflected and felt by passengers and employees for decades to come.

“Richard has an incredible skill set. I’ve been thrilled to work with him,” said Cassotis, who describes Belotti as a great listener and incredibly humble.  “I will miss his passion and professionalism. His work is among the best and his legacy will always be in the airport.”

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