Changing Planes, Changing Plans

Changes in my life mean I’m back to flying more often.  The couple of years away from frequent air travel has reminded me how much it has changed. 

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Midfield terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport. 

photo: Scott Hanley

Photo: Scott Hanley
Photo: Scott Hanley

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a very good retrospective on the “new” airport – and how the world changed in less than a decade to make for a decidedly less ambitious current state. 

The “new” Pittsburgh International was unique in its time – I liked to call it the most secure shopping mall in America, since, before “9/11,” anyone could come in and peruse the scores of shopping mall-type stores at the AirMall.  I recall buying my first sound card for a computer at PIT while on a visit with my sons.   

The walk to make connections was far easier than most airports.  The baggage claim system was “state of the art,” though that art had a way of not always living up the promise…

Greater Pittsburgh International Airport, 1950’s

I remember flying into the old Pittsburgh airport long before I ever thought I might live in Pittsburgh.  It was a grand old place in its own way.


In January 2001, NPR’s All Things Considered sent an entire production team to Pittsburgh International to follow what went on in the course of the 24 hour workdays at what was still, then, a very busy airport.

Airplanes at Pittsburgh International Airport
(Photo: Ellen Weiss)

This NPR project was more than a dozen years ago.  It is interesting to hear how much like every other airport operation PIT was back then.  It is a transit hub, so there are things that have to be done.   People working at 3 in the morning face many common issues, so this was a good, generalized set of stories. 

Still active but not so busy

Pittsburgh still has a fairly busy airport for a community of its size.  It just isn’t as busy as what planners had expected. PIT appears to now be serving fewer travelers than Cleveland-Hopkins International. 

The evolution over time of Detroit Metro Airport is a good indication of what a difference the travel needs of 4 to 5 million people can do for business as opposed to a market of 1 or 2 million. With more international travel and a larger base population to originate flights from, Detroit Metro continues on a pattern of increased passenger visits.

I remember coming to the “new” Pittsburgh International not just to make a connection but for business.  But it took very sad turn with the crash of USAir flight 427 taking 132 lives in September 1994. This was less than two years after the opening of the new terminal.  This was also not long after the Pittsburgh newspaper strike of 1992-93, which changed the landscape of media in that city. 

The media coverage of crash of flight 427 was a bellwether event for a city ready to head into yet another era of change.  The much investigated accident led to changes in how all Boeing 737’s would be maintained, too.

The downturn in USAirways activity, the reduced air travel from several recessions and the very nature of being in a smaller city meant that whatever USAir would or would not do in Pittsburgh would have stronger impacts on the airport than one would see in a much larger market. 

I now live in Birmingham, AL, where the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport is the largest in the state and sees about half the traffic of PIT.  

Which brings me to a topic I hadn’t thought of at all when I first contemplated writing this post.  As of this week, the Birmingham News is changing, too, cutting back print editions from 7 days a week to three, and renaming the enterprise the Alabama Media group. 

My station, WBHM, and our Junior Advisors Board is holding an “Issues and Ales” event this week, bringing together media experts of different backgrounds to discuss what is next in the realm of information and journalism in transition.

Thursday, Oct. 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Cantina at Pepper Place in Birmingham, AL.

Hope to see you there – as we get started on the future.

John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” and I tend to agree. But if you are paying attention and choose to act, perhaps you can have a role in whatever comes next.

But fasten your seat belts, put your tray in the appropriate position, and be mindful of the exits!


About sehanley

Musician, journalist, teacher, technologist, consultant & former NPR station manager. A media and entertainment professional, journalist, entrepreneur, technology advocate, educator, student, mentor, manager, and media, musical and theatrical performer. Voice talent and coach for music and spoken word. I also act and sing (mostly jazz, but a lot of experience with choral, classical and musical theater, too). Brass instruments, too, but my AF ofM card lapsed years ago. Heard on the national jazz service, PubJazz, and in the Pittsburgh market on WZUM/Pittsburgh Jazz Channel. I also teach college level courses in media and journalism. I managed the leading NPR/public radio station in Pittsburgh, PA for 16 years, a few years later was GM of the NPR station WBHM in Birmingham, AL. I served for six very busy years on the NPR Board of Directors and have done much volunteer service for national and local organizations in the communities I have been privileged to live and work in. Former NPR Board Member, former President of the Pittsburgh Radio Organization, sometime musician, relentless technology advocate. Opinions expressed are not the viewpoints of any employer or affiliation past or present.
This entry was posted in Scott Hanley. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s