Stories of the Year: Blue Sky News Looks Back at 2021

In middle of pandemic, Pittsburgh's airports continued surging forward

By BlueSkyStaff

Published December 16, 2021

Read Time: 9 mins


Whew. What a year.

The biggest story of 2021, of course, was navigating our way through the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to rebound from the industry lows that began in 2020. We are happy to say that passenger traffic levels steadily grew as the year went on and we are optimistic that they will continue to rise in 2022.

But the Allegheny County Airport Authority accomplished so much this year even as we grappled with the pandemic, and we wanted to take a look back at these high points as 2021 comes to a close. We start off with a photo slideshow and then link to our most important stories of 2021. Thanks for reading this year, and we look forward to seeing you next year with all-new stories, photos and videos.

Air Force One taxis at Pittsburgh International Airport on March 31, 2021, as President Joe Biden arrives to make a speech. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Biden Gives a Shout Out to PIT’s New Terminal

The new presidential administration made improving and rebuilding public infrastructure a centerpiece of its plans. As a critical part of the national transportation network planning to a new billion-dollar terminal, this was a very encouraging sign for us.

But imagine how cool it was for President Joe Biden to land at PIT only a couple of months into his term, speak to our CEO, Christina Cassotis, about our Terminal Modernization Program, and then mention it during a nationally televised speech he gave just a few miles down the road?

About a month later, we were able to give Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg a much more detailed look at the TMP, as well as other projects like our UV-enhanced autonomous robot scrubbers and the PIT PAWS program.

British Airways launched service between London and Pittsburgh in April 2019 before suspending service during the pandemic. The airline recently announced flights will resume June 3. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

British Airways Returns

We wrapped up the year with splendid news from across the pond: our friends at British Airways will resume their Pittsburgh-London Heathrow service next year after a pandemic-related suspension.

When we announced this service in April 2019, it was a watershed moment for us—BA had come back to Pittsburgh after 20 years. A nonstop flight to one of the world’s largest aviation hubs was a boon for both business and leisure travelers and opened our region to global opportunities.

But like virtually all international air service, the route was suspended in March 2020 as COVID-19 spread across the planet. However, airport leadership continued talks with BA in the interim, and that strong relationship helped pave a path forward to June 2022, when those flights will start back up.

And what better way to celebrate the new year than with tickets to London?

A rendering of the arrivals hall in Pittsburgh International Airport’s new terminal. (Courtesy of Gensler + HDR in association with luis vidal + architects)

Airlines Approve Restart of TMP

From full airline approval, favorable financial ratings, the start of early site prep work, and official groundbreaking, 2021 was a year filled with progress and milestone achievements on one of the largest infrastructure projects in Pittsburgh history—our Terminal Modernization Program.

At the close of 2021, nearly 10 cranes and drilling rigs have risen from the west ramp between Concourses C and D, and some 100 skilled workers are onsite daily installing the foundational legs of the new 700,000 square-foot terminal in preparation for the start of steel erection in February 2022. Construction on the new parking garage, rental car customer service building, parking lots and entrance roadways is set to being this spring.

All of these accomplishments would not have been possible without the help and support of an engaged community and a dedicated team making it all happen safely and efficiently.

But it all kicked into high gear in March with the OK from our airline partners.

Airport officials and local dignitaries pose at the groundbreaking for Pittsburgh International Airport’s new terminal on Oct. 14, 2021. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

PIT Breaks Ground For Future

The authority had planned to do this in 2020.

The official groundbreaking for the $1.4 billion Terminal Modernization Program, which will create an entirely new pre-security terminal for PIT, as well as an adjacent complex featuring a 3,300-space parking garage and rental car facilities, was scheduled to take place 20 months ago after years of planning and design. As with so many other things, the pandemic postponed the event.

But in the meantime, we took the opportunity to pivot and refine our plans for the terminal to include lessons learned from COVID-19, adding more outdoor space as well as clean air technology.

And in October, we and 300 of our community partners and friends finally held an amazing groundbreaking ceremony that officially got the ball rolling on a dynamic new gateway to our region that will set the standard for our industry worldwide. It was definitely worth the wait.

A Southwest plane takes off over 9,360 solar panels at Pittsburgh International Airport, part of a first-of-its-kind microgrid. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

PIT Goes Energy Independent With Its Own Microgrid

Pittsburgh International Airport is a pretty big place. Nearly 9,000 acres featuring two terminals, four runways, a hotel, a gas station and myriad other associated buildings, nearly all of which operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

And all of them need electricity all the time, as well, and any loss of power would be potentially catastrophic. So we decided to simply generate our own and never worry about that energy supply being disrupted.

Our microgrid, which officially came online this summer, is powered by natural gas drilled onsite as well as more than 9,000 solar panels on our property. We are the first airport in the world to be completely powered by that combination, and the benefits in terms of sustainability and security are numerous.

Workers load the first outbound Amazon Air cargo flight at Pittsburgh International Airport on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Photo by Alyson Walls)

Amazon Air Arrives in Pittsburgh

The global shipping industry found itself under the spotlight during the pandemic as quarantined consumers ordered products for home delivery at an unprecedented rate and the shutdown of international travel made cargo space as scarce as ever.

PIT was able to offer solutions to international shippers with our cargo program, which grew quickly in 2020 as our efficiency and location appealed to freight forwarders and airlines looking for alternatives to congested hubs. Perhaps our biggest highlight was adding flights from Amazon Air and becoming one of about 40 cities in the e-commerce giant’s air network.

The new service has been so successful that Amazon Air added a second daily flight only a couple of months later.

Sixteen minority or women business owners graduated in November from the seven-week 2021 DBE Bonding Series hosted by PIT in partnership with Riverside Center for Innovation. (Image courtesy of Jonathan Wright, Picture it Wright)

Airport Prioritizes DBE Opportunities

One of the new industry standards we’re aiming to set with the TMP is increasing the involvement of disadvantaged business enterprises, or DBEs: for-profit small businesses at least 51 percent owned by a woman or minority.

The TMP is an opportunity to give these small businesses experience and connections they might not typically get on smaller projects. Prime contractors on the TMP must use DBEs for at least 14 percent of the work they are scheduled to do, and are strongly encouraged to engage more.

In addition to contract stipulations, the authority is hosting a number of DBE Bonding Series courses in partnership with Riverside Center for Innovation that provide DBE owners with information and tools to help them secure bonds, allowing them to compete for contracts to work on jobs such as the TMP.

This new terminal will be built by and for Pittsburgh—all of Pittsburgh.

Airline founder David Neeleman poses in front of a Breeze Airways jet. (Photo courtesy of Breeze Airways)

Breeze Airways Includes PIT in Launch

David Neeleman knows a little bit about what it takes to succeed in commercial aviation.

The founder or co-founder of WestJet, JetBlue Airways and Azul Brazilian Airlines announced his latest venture, Breeze Airways, in May along with the first 16 airports on its route map, which included Pittsburgh.

PIT’s first Breeze flights took off in July, heading toward Hartford, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; Charleston, South Carolina; and Norfolk, Virginia.

Philip Moslener, Wabtec’s corporate vice president for advanced technology, speaks in front of the SLM Solutions 800 printing machine that is the centerpiece of the company’s facility at Neighborhood 91. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Wabtec Makes it Official at Neighborhood 91

When we announced the creation of Neighborhood 91 in October 2019, it was just a graded dirt road at the west end of airport property.

But the vision was already becoming a reality, and this summer we cut the ribbon on the first manufacturing facility in the world’s first campus designed to condense and connect all components of the advanced manufacturing supply chain into one production ecosystem.

The best part? Our new partner is Wabtec, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Pittsburgh with roots going back George Westinghouse’s Strip District factory in the 1860s. Their new facility features an SLM 800 3D printer, one of just four of its size in the U.S.

John Isherwood of Honeywell provides a demonstration of the airport air quality dashboard inside PIT’s xBridge innovation center. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

xBridge  Welcomes Partners

We like to say that innovation takes place throughout the Allegheny County Airport Authority, at every level, every day. And it does.

But we also decided to dedicate a 10,000-foot space specifically to innovation, where we and our partners can experiment, ideate, build and just tinker around with the latest technology and visions for our industry. Our xBridge, at the end of Concourse B, features working gates and jetways and creates a real-life laboratory for aviation innovation.

We announced the xBridge in late 2020, but our first partners came on board early this year, and we couldn’t be more excited to see what they come up with.

Ada Harris, wife of William ‘Woogie’ Harris, Lena Horne’s husband Louis Jones, and Lena Horne holding Harris’s coat, in Allegheny County Airport, February 1938. (Photo by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images)

Allegheny County Airport Turns 90

Pittsburghers can be fanatical about embracing their history and heritage, easily recalling long-departed landmarks large and small and reminiscing about their community’s famed past.

Of course, we don’t have that problem with our general aviation facility, Allegheny County Airport, which celebrated its 90th anniversary in September. After a recent refurbishing, the signature Art Deco terminal is as sharp as the day it opened but now features modern amenities.

A community event featuring official proclamations, artists, craft vendors, food trucks, static aircraft displays and live music doubled as a spirited birthday party for AGC, still going strong after all these years as the state’s fifth-busiest airport.

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