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October 16, 2015

Who forced the Midfield Terminal, USAir or Allegheny County?

the House that Tom wanted built, and Ed paid for, for a while

Recently the Beaver County Times wrote a story: Promises made and broken: Picking up the pieces left by US Airways' departure from Pittsburgh about the boom-and-bust of the PIT Airport midfield terminal.

In the generally accepted narrative, USAir (later USAirways) forced the County to build the midfield terminal and then churlishly abandoned their committments and contracts to abandon the County's investment to emphasize the Charlotte airport instead.

But did USAir force the County to build Midfield, or was it the other way around? Could it be that the Allegheny County Commissioners drove USAir into accepting the County's Midfield project?

Remember that in the late 1980's with Big Steel gone, the County was desperate for jobs and investment.

In the story presented in the image at right, read Page1 and then read continuation page, a very different story is told: the story of an airline that didn't want to build Midfield, and a County that wanted to leverage the expiration of the airline's lease into a jobs and infrastructure program to boost the local economy.

This Post-Gazette article reports that the County assigned funds for site preparation without USAir's agreement on the Midfield project.

A story written after the death of Tom Foerster quotes USAIrways CEO Colodny as identifying the County Commissioner as the person responsible for Midfield.

Today, three months after [Allegheny County Commissioner Tom] Foerster's death at age 71, county officials, Katselas, family members and others will gather in one of the terminal's two buildings to pay tribute to his vision, determination and perseverance in getting the complex built.

They will rename the Landside building the "Tom Foerster Landside Terminal" building and dedicate a plaque in his honor, one that lauds a "champion of change."

"If there is any name that should be put on it, it's Tom's," said former USAir Chairman and CEO Edwin I. Colodny.

From another Post Gazette retrospective comes a 2012 story on the changes at the airport:

The late Tom Foerster, former chairman of the Allegheny County board of commissioners, led the charge to build a new terminal based on Mr. Katselas' design -- an X-shaped boarding facility linked by an underground tram to a landside building for ticketing and check-in.

At first Mr. Colodny resisted the plan, whether as a negotiating ploy or simply because US Airways enjoyed dirt cheap fees in the old terminal, some of the lowest in the country. But by 1988, his resolve weakened as it became more untenable for the growing airline to stay in its old space.


I'm left to conclude: The Allegheny County political structure chose to persuade USAir to fund their Midfield project as an economic stimulus after the collapse of the steel industry. Eventually, USAirways left because of

  • Mergers that resulted in redundant hubs in the USAir system
  • changes in the airline industry
  • USAirways strategic focus on Europe and the Caribbean
  • the effect of 9-11-01 on USAirways, who suffered like no other airline because of the closure of its DCA hub

When the Airline voided contracts in bankruptcy court and de-focused/abandoned the PIT hub, the Allegheny County political structure needed a narrative to explain the financial debacle. People rarely blame themselves, and especially politicians; the scapegoat for the outcome was USAirways.

This is not to say that the County's Midfield initiative was irresponsible or wrong-headed; in fact, from October 1992 to September 2001 it was a wonderful thing. It was an attempt at economic development that worked for a while.

Now that the airplanes are gone, the County is working real estate development and fracking extraction on the airport property. You try one thing, then you try another. There's nothing wrong with that.

But it seems too facile to blame USAir for the demise of Midfield.

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