Happy Birthday, ACAA!

After 20 years, many still don’t know what an airport authority is – or does

By Bob Kerlik

Published August 5, 2019

Read Time: 3 mins


The Allegheny County Airport Authority turned 20 last month.

No one made a fuss. There were no balloons or cake. In fact, many people don’t even know that authorities exist, let alone understand what they do.

Authorities are government entities that operate separately from other municipal departments. Instead of reporting directly to a mayor or county executive and council, authorities are governed by an appointed board of community professionals.

“It’s why I took the job,” said Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis. “Having a board of business people and representatives from the community who understand there needs to be an external, global focus for the airport is important. If you’re a city or county department, you have to constantly battle a lot of other factors.”

The ACAA oversees Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport. Its nine-member board is appointed by the county executive, subject to approval by county council, and its meetings and records are public, just like any other public body. It approves all contracts above $100,000 at its monthly meetings, and makes significant decisions such as moving forward on the airport’s Terminal Modernization Program.

Airport Authority Solicitor Jeff Letwin, who helped to organize the body 20 years ago, said the airlines helped push for its creation. While the county still owns the airport and the land, the authority operates the facilities under a 75-year lease.

“The view was generally that authorities are more cost-efficient and they provide some independence while still maintaining oversight,” Letwin said. “The airlines thought it would work as a better model – and it has.”

Cassotis said there are always exceptions and that many city- or county-run airports do well, just as there are some airport authorities that are not envied.

“I feel lucky to work for this board whose guidance and leadership allowed us to enjoy success that’s greatly impacting the region,” Cassotis said.

Janet Bednarek, a professor at the University of Dayton who has studied the history of airports, said two benefits of authorities are that local politics are muted with a professional board and that authorities can issue debt on their own.

The Allegheny County Airport Authority held its first meeting on July 29, 1999. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

“The perceived benefit is you’re bringing in professional management and the agency isn’t run by politicians. It’s a different environment because you’re not as caught up in local politics,” Bednarek said. “But a lot of it depends on having a good board.”

Local government leaders have many issues to consider and airports might not be the main focus on a daily basis, she said.

“They have the streets, sewers, police, fire and more. They can’t be quite as nimble as a singularly focused agency. The commissioner of public works might have a lot on his plate, but if you’re an authority, it’s not like you have to wait in line to get answers.”

The creation of an airport authority isn’t always smooth. The world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is operated as a city department and currently locked in a battle with a Georgia state legislator who wants to create an authority.

Other aviation authorities have been around for a very long time, such as the Kenton County Airport Board, established in 1943, which oversees Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

For the record, ACAA recorded its first meeting on July 29, 1999. So happy birthday, ACAA. Had we known this was such a big deal, we would have sent a card.

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