Part 2: The Sound of Silence

How PIT Survived the Pandemic

Click here for Part 1: How PIT Survived the Pandemic

April 2020

PIT Passenger Volume: 32,447, down from 805,299 in April 2019

And just when it seemed that things couldn’t get worse, April arrived. The aviation industry hit bottom; passenger volumes at Pittsburgh International are down 96 percent from the prior year.

Help is on the way. In late March, Congress passes a $2 trillion stimulus package that provides $25 billion to passenger air carriers and another $10 billion in grants to airports.

Cassotis continues weekly conference calls with staff. “We’re open for business,” she tells them. “We are open for people who have to travel, for cargo planes carrying PPE, for our military. We will stay open no matter what.”

Click here to experience this story in a full multimedia format

By April 9, more than 2,200 aircraft—about 35 percent of U.S. airlines’ fleets—sit idle. The flight tracking website FlightRadar24 shows that, in the past month, airlines experienced a roughly 70 percent decrease in the number of daily commercial flight operations worldwide.

April 12

The normal sights and sounds of the nation’s airports, much like the streets in the cities they serve, are replaced by vacant concourses and an eerie silence.

PIT looks for ways to reduce operating costs. Select people movers, elevators and escalators are shut down, along with the entirety of Concourse C. Bicycle racks block the entrances to some restrooms to save on cleaning, sewage and electrical costs.

The long-term and extended-term parking lots, one of the airport’s biggest sources of revenue, are closed to new customers. (Returning customers can still exit). The remaining flyers are treated to an $8/daily parking fee for the spaces nearest the terminals.


‘Pittsburgh being Pittsburgh’

April 22

With acres of empty parking lot space, the airport leans on its culture of innovation and comes up with a novel idea. Soon, volunteers are loading more than 1,600 boxes of food into hundreds of cars as part of one of the region’s largest-ever food distribution events, a first for the facility and a prominent example of the Authority’s mission to serve the community.

Staff from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, assisted by airport volunteers, service 10 lines of cars that number in the hundreds before the event even begins. To minimize contact and maintain social distancing, the drivers stay in their cars while volunteers load two 25-pound boxes of food in each trunk.

Janice Millerschoen-Jenkins, of Robinson Township, Pa., and her dog arrive several hours early for the event to ensure her place in line. “I think it’s wonderful,” she says. “It’s just Pittsburgh being Pittsburgh.”

A few days later, more than 1,000 cars line up through a winding series of lanes in the parking lot of Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin to receive free dog and cat food courtesy of the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team. By 2 p.m., more than 1,000 bags of food, which had been purchased with donations made to the Rescue Team, are gone.

April 25

The first of several National Airlines cargo flights arrive from South Korea carrying critical personal protective equipment for the country as part of a FEMA charter flight program.

As passenger service slows during the pandemic, the airport focuses more closely on cargo, which brings a large economic impact to the region. PIT provides much-needed logistical space for shippers as an alternative to larger, congested gateway airports.

The National cargo, which consisted of N95 masks and other PPE, was offloaded and on trucks within a few hours of landing.

Cathay Pacific would later launch service from Vietnam to Hong Kong to PIT in September, and Qatar Airways Cargo would follow in December with international cargo service, fueling a surge in international freighter service.


Robots to the rescue

May 2020

PIT Passenger Volume: 92,529, down from 875,447 in May 2019

PIT teams up with Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Robotics to deploy a pair of autonomous floor scrubbers — essentially self-driving robots that clean floors in an ultra-efficient manner.

What makes the robots special is the integration of ultraviolet lights that augment their traditional cleaning tools, a first for U.S. airports. Researchers believe UV-C rays, which have been used to sanitize hospital rooms for decades, can be applied in other high-traffic settings, like airports, with similar results.

“Passengers don’t just want to see a clean airport — they want to know it’s clean and they want to know it’s safe,” says Katherine Karolick, PIT’s Senior Vice President for Information Technology. “Ultraviolet robots have been used in hospitals as a way to disinfect and kill microorganisms, so it is definitely something that makes sense for an airport.”

Soon, each robot is named for a noteworthy aviation pioneer, with his or her biography prominently displayed on the side: Amelia is named for Amelia Earhart, the famed pilot and female aviation trailblazer. Orville and Wilbur are named after the Wright brothers, considered the fathers of aviation. And Rosa is named for Rosa Mae Willis Alford, the sole female mechanic to work on the planes of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, who spent much of her life in nearby Beaver County.

May 14

Officials unveil “PIT Safe Travels,” the airport’s new health and safety initiative to increase confidence in air travel. A key component of the program includes requiring everyone on airport property— officials, travelers and airport staff—to wear a face covering or mask.

Other changes include signage and floor markings throughout the terminal to offer guidance on six-foot social distancing; shields and barriers in high-traffic areas, including public counters, checkpoints and baggage claim; and reconfigured seating at gates and other high-traffic areas to allow for social distancing.

In a video message from PIT’s Operations Center, Cassotis lauds the airport staff for “keeping this place going, 24/7.”


Cautious Optimism

June 2020

PIT Passenger Volume: 196,044, down from 900,802 in June 2019

After two of the most brutal months in the history of commercial aviation, the summer travel season opens with a few bright spots.

About 5,000 people move through PIT’s TSA checkpoints on June 22, the highest number since travel nosedived in mid-March. Normally, PIT would see more than 15,000 people daily through the checkpoint at this time of year.

The second phase of the PIT Safe Travels program includes reopening parts of the terminals that have not been in use since the start of the pandemic, including some restaurants and other concessions.


Travel uptick stalls

July 2020

PIT Passenger Volume: 249,657, down from 914,145 in July 2019

After two months of small but steady passenger increases, U.S. airlines brace for what could be a further drop in demand as coronavirus cases surge in popular leisure travel destinations, including Florida, Arizona, California and Texas.

“This crisis could have a very long shadow. Passengers are telling us that it will take time before they return to their old travel habits,” said Alexandre de Juniac, director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association. “Many airlines are not planning for demand to return to 2019 levels until 2023 or 2024.”

July 20

Airline officials keep a nervous eye on Oct. 1, the day when employment regulations imposed by the CARES Act federal relief package expire, allowing carriers to lay off or furlough workers.

Despite working for months to find creative ways to stave off layoffs and financial disaster, the situation is dire:

  • United Airlines notifies 36,000 employees of possible layoffs and furloughs.
  • American Airlines announces it may have to cut 25,000 employees from its payroll.
  • About 17,000 Delta Air Lines employees take advantage of early retirement or buyout plans.

Heading for a tough fall

August 2020

PIT Passenger Volume: 263,841, down from 887,387 in August 2019

As the summer travel season winds down, optimism wanes. The uptick in flights over the summer has come overwhelmingly from leisure travelers; businesses travelers have almost completely stopped flying, a passenger segment that has long been a reliable and lucrative base for industry revenue.

With no clear end to the pandemic, companies are reluctant to schedule employee travel, leaving airlines almost completely reliant on leisure travel that typically subsides with autumn’s arrival. As Labor Day approaches, uncertainty looms large.

“It’s going to be a bleak fall. There’s no way around it,” said Henry Harteveldt, an aviation consultant and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “We cannot sugarcoat it. It’s going to be a very, very tough fall period for airlines.”

There has never been such a prolonged downturn in passenger demand at any other time in the history of commercial aviation, said Janet Bednarek, professor of history at the University of Dayton and author of “Airports, Cities and the Jet Age.”

“We have no playbook for dealing with a global pandemic,” she said. “The last one of this kind of magnitude happened in 1918. Not a lot of commercial aviation in 1918.”

Click here for “Part 3: Ready for Takeoff”

Related Articles