In airport concourses US Airways has cut almost 500

Kevin Tinta remembers the days, not too long ago, when his sandwich shop at Pittsburgh International Airport couldn't keep up with the crowds, when lines stretched down the concourse and he hardly had time to take a break. Now, the few employees that...

A short walk away, Kyle McCusker, the lone employee staffing a Ben & Jerry's ice cream concession, said business has been extremely slow.

"By the end of the night, I'll probably be able to count the number of customers I had on my hands," he said.

In January, to save money, the airport authority plans to wall off the ends of the A and B concourses and close 27 gates.

Airport passenger traffic has fallen from a high of 20.7 million in 1997 to 9.9 million last year. The biggest factor in that has been the huge drop in connecting traffic. As US Airways has retrenched, abandoning its hub and spoke business here, pass-through traffic has plunged from a high of 13.9 million people in 1996 to 1.7 million last year.

With the cutbacks, airline costs have increased. The airport's per passenger cost has gone from a low of $5.98 in 2000 to $11.89 in September. It's a simple equation -- as fewer travelers come through the terminal, the per passenger cost increases.

Concession revenue from the award-winning Airmall has plummeted from a high of $89.9 million in 2001 to $65.3 million in 2005. It was $65.9 million last year. The number of stores has dropped from 110 (including those in the now closed commuter terminal) in 2001 to 99 in September. But it's still more than the 96 the airport started with 15 years ago.

Despite that and the many flight cuts, Jay Kruisselbrink, vice president of development for BAA Pittsburgh, the Airmall manager, said sales are still "very good" and actually "trending up over last year."

He acknowledged that some stores likely will be hurt when 27 gates are closed and the ends of the A and B concourses are walled off in January. But what overall impact that will have is hard to predict, he said.

"We're hoping the impact in January will be minimal but time will tell," he said.

To some extent, the airport has been able to offset the losses by boosting its local traffic, spurred in large part by the success in recruiting low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue to start service in Pittsburgh after US Airways dropped the airport as a hub in 2004.

In two years, Southwest has become the airport's second largest carrier, with 15.5 percent of all traffic.

Origin and destination traffic -- that is, the number of passengers not getting off connecting flights and getting on another one -- hit a high of 8.2 million last year. That in turn boosted parking and rental car revenues to a record $29.7 million and $82.4 million, respectively, producing this paradox: While the airport has lost more than half of its passenger traffic, the parking lots are full.

Mr. Kruisselbrink said the origin and destination traffic is actually better for the Airmall than connecting because travelers have more time to browse, particularly given security measures that require them to be at the airport 90 minutes to two hours before flights.

With the shift, the airport's C and D concourses, traditionally slower than A and B, have become busier,. On these concourses you will find upstarts like AirTran and JetBlue along with legacy carriers like United, Delta, American and Northwest.

Most of these airlines have posted gains as US Airways has cut. But despite those successes and more local travelers than ever before, they cannot come close to making up for the traffic that has been lost.

Still, Mr. Kruisselbrink said BAA has given no thought to pulling out of Pittsburgh. He says the airport will rise again.

"It's a fantastic facility," he said. "It's just a wonderfully designed building. It's got the best staff of any airport. It's situated perfectly. We don't have any air space issues. So yeah, I don't know how long it will take but this is going to be a viable airport for a long time to come."

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Here are the Post-Gazette's Top 10 alternative uses for all that unused concourse space at Pittsburgh International Airport:

10. Martha Stewart University, with classes on cooking, flower arranging, scrapbooking and home decorating.

9. The Mall of Moon -- complete with a Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, skateboard park, paintball field, velodrome, indoor water park and Xtreme People Moving.

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