Bill Murray’s Courteous Gesture and Other VIP Stories

Getting movie stars, athletes through PIT is all about speed and comfort

By Rick Wills

Published August 15, 2019

Read Time: 4 mins


When it comes to celebrity travelers, Pittsburgh may not be Los Angeles or New York, but we have our share of the rich and famous passing through the airport.

Airports can be very busy places, with long lines at security and people rushing to their boarding gates. If you’re a celebrity, getting in and out of the airport can take even longer. Just ask Pittsburgh Steelers great Franco Harris, who is easily recognized every time he flies through the airport.

“Like everyone else in an airport, celebrities are there to get somewhere. They want to make their flights on time and avoid attention, which does not mean they do not appreciate fans,” said Jeff Martinelli, manager of customer programs at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

“We don’t want someone to complain about their experience at this airport to their millions of followers on Twitter.”

Airports with the most celebrity sightings include New York’s JFK and LaGuardia, London Heathrow, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson and Chicago O’Hare, according to website TheTravel.Com.

Los Angeles International, where photographers from TMZ and other celebrity news websites camp out for celebrity sightings, leads them all.

In 2017, LAX opened a VIP terminal called The Private Suite, which airport officials say is secluded and protected. Operated by  security firm Gavin de Becker and Associates, the terminal was built after the company won a contract from the airport authority, which did not pay for its construction.

“It offers its own TSA, Customs and Immigration. It’s a place for people who can pay the price of admission,” said airport spokesman Frederick Badlissi.

When it’s time to board, Private Suite members are driven across the tarmac to a airplane. Clients don’t walk down crowded concourses, line up at ticket counters and boarding gates or deal with baggage or paparazzi, according to Gavin de Becker and Associates.

And they pay well for those courtesies. Annual membership is $7,500 plus an additional $2,700 per domestic flight and $3,000 per international flight.

Pittsburgh International has a lighter touch. Airport officials just want everything to go smoothly for the VIPs coming to town, Martinelli said.

“We want them to have a positive experience,” he said. “We don’t want someone to complain about their experience at this airport to their millions of followers on Twitter.”

Getting in and out

PIT began escorting VIPs about two years ago in an effort to make the traveling experience better for all customers.

The airport works with several companies, including Cypress, TX-based Confidential. The company helps people get in and out of airports and provides drivers.

Helping VIPs can be as simple as getting them into the airport through a back or side door, and maybe using an elevator not used by the public, said Martinelli, who oversees the program.

Actor Viola Davis recently passed through the airport with little fanfare, he said.

Davis was in town to film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a motion picture based on the August Wilson play.  She is the first black actor to achieve the “triple crown” of acting – winning Academy, Emmy and Tony awards – one of just 24 people so honored.

“We met her when she was dropped off and got her into the airport through a seldom-used entrance,” Martinelli said.

Some celebrities, like Charleroi native Shirley Jones, pass through the airport frequently.

“Celebrities are not unfriendly. They just don’t want to get in a situation where they get stuck in a crowd.”

The 85-year-old actor and singer became a household name after starring in the musicals “Oklahoma” and “Carousel” in the 1950s and later played Shirley Partridge on “The Partridge Family.” Jones visits often, Martinelli said.

In recent years, singers Jennifer Hudson and Toni Braxton have flown into town for PrideFest, an annual LGBTQ event held each June in downtown Pittsburgh.

Other visitors have included Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Murray, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell.

Celebrities may get help moving through the airport, but that does not mean they go unrecognized.

Jackson chatted with passengers while riding on the airport’s people mover train, Martinelli said.

“Celebrities are not unfriendly. They just don’t want to get in a situation where they get stuck in a crowd,” he said.

One woman on an escalator was startled when Bill Murray retrieved a scarf she’d dropped.

“She had quite the look of surprise when she turned around and saw that Bill Murray picked up her scarf,” Martinelli said.

Carell, star of film and the hit television show “The Office,” passed through the airport mostly unnoticed by pulling a baseball cap partially over his face.

“At the gate, he said, ‘I’ll be fine,’” Martinelli said. “Like him, famous people, who are almost always in first class, want to be the last people to board the plane.”

Nearly all celebrities are frequent fliers and avoid long security lines with TSA Precheck.

Some film stars pass in and out of town entirely unnoticed, presumably on private flights that use a non-public part of the airport.

For example, Martinelli said he never saw Tom Hanks during the filming of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a film about children’s television icon Fred Rogers. “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was produced at WQED in Pittsburgh and aired nationally for 35 years.

Steelers 1970s greats Harris and Rocky Bleier are airport regulars. But it was Steelers linebacker and first-round draft pick Devin Bush who caused the most recent stir, Martinelli said.

“We took him out a back way,” he said.

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