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Looking to the future

Paul Hoback Jr. says it is important to make sure our area’s unique culture is woven into his latest project.

“This is the only place in the world, I think, that when you are merging from three lanes into two, people actually will let you in. We have cookie tables at weddings — it is the friendliest place I have seen in the world, and we want to make sure we reflect that,” he explained.

The project Hoback is working on is the $1.39 billion terminal modernization program that is under way at Pittsburgh International Airport.

By the time all of the construction on the 700,000-square-foot effort is completed in early 2025, the familiar landside-airside configuration that has been in place since the facility opened in 1992 will be replaced with a new terminal area that will connect with the current airside area near the TGI Fridays restaurant and will consolidate the ticketing, security and baggage claim operations.

Hoback, the chief development officer for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, was speaking during Wednesday’s 113th-annual meeting and awards dinner held by the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce at St. Florian Event Center in Wintersville.

The current facility is still sometimes referred to as the “new” airport, something Hoback said just isn’t the case.

“Well, it’s not new — it’s 30 years old,” he said. “What we have is not good enough. We currently have a people mover system that is past its useful life and in desperate need of replacement. It costs $4 million a year to maintain. We have eight miles of baggage conveyors that go from the landside terminal to the airside terminal that are well past their useful life and need to be replaced.

“I’m proud of the fact that it looks so good on the outside to a normal passenger walking through, but it’s really all of the systems behind the walls that really are beyond their useful lives.”

It is, in essence, a facility that was built for another era — a time when US Airways was operating a hub out of the airport, a time when it handled 21 million passengers a year and projections showed it was well on its way to seeing that number grow to 32 million passengers, a time before Sept. 11, 2001.

Changes that came after saw US Airways go through a couple of bankruptcies and shut its local hub before a merger with American Airlines was completed in 2015. By that time, yearly traffic at the airport had dropped to 7.5 million passengers. That number would rebound to 10 million passengers before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

When all of the work is completed, Hoback said, the facility will have been transformed into the best airport for people who start their travel in the region or end their travel in the region.

And it won’t be the first time Pittsburgh has served as a model for air travel.

“For the past 90 years, we have been setting the bar for aviation,” Hoback said, pointing to 1931, when the Allegheny County Airport opened in West Mifflin. It became the first fully paved airfield and the first lighted airfield in the world.

That innovation continued with the 1952 construction of the “old” airport terminal.

“That was truly advancing terminal facilities,” Hoback explained. “It had a movie theater and an observation deck. It was way ahead if its time — it was seven stories of granite. It was just a brilliant building.”

And that led to the current configuration.

“That was setting the bar very high,” Hoback continued. “It was very innovative. It had an X-shape design for our airside terminal where planes could actually go all the way around. It had shopping that was beyond belief. Everybody wanted to stop in Pittsburgh for the shopping when we were a hub.”

Now, he said, the vision is to build an airport that will be flexible enough to last for 40 years, one that will truly reflect the region, one that will be efficient and offer reduced operating costs and increased opportunity for revenue.

The area’s rolling hills, for example, will be reflected in the roof, which will let in lots of natural light. Tree columns will greet passengers inside, to reflect the area’s hardwood industry.

There will be ample space for meeters and greeters — the people who accompany passengers into the airport when they are flying out and are waiting to meet them when they have flown in.

“That happens nowhere in the world on the scale that it does locally,” Hoback said. “And that says a lot about our community.”

It’s a transformation that will take place while the airport is functioning fully.

“One of the most unique aspects of this is the fact that when most airports are under construction, it is like changing a tire on a speeding car,” Hoback said. “Our passengers will almost never know that we are under construction unless they look outside.”

When all of the work is complete, passengers arriving will know they are in Pittsburgh, Hoback added.

“When people come to visit the region, I often take them and drive them through the Fort Pitt Tunnels. I don’t think there are many places in the world that have a front door like coming through the tunnel and seeing that amazing cityscape pop up in front of you,” he explained.

“When we started to talk about the project, we realized that for 10 million passengers a year, the front door of the region actually happens at Pittsburgh Intentional Airport. We wanted to make sure that we built an airport that the region deserves.”

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Hoback was not the only speaker on the agenda. Cameron Mitchell, the founder and president of Columbus-based Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, offered an overview of his operation that has grown to cover 30 concepts in 42 states plus Washington, D.C., since the first location was opened in Worthington on Oct. 5, 1993.

Mitchell explained that while working through COVID-19 has been difficult, he is optimistic about the future of the restaurant industry.

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Among those honored during the evening was the late Suzanne Kresser, who was presented with a lifetime achievement award for her work in the community.

Kresser died in June at the age of 51. Accepting the award were her mother and father, Linda and Frank Slowikowski, and a sister, Sherri Wilson.

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The dinner was the last one Tricia Maple-Damewood will preside over as president. Maple-Damewood, who announced in August she planned to leave the post at the end of the year, said she will be working closely with her replacement, Kate Sedgmer, until then to ensure a smooth transition.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)

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