One of the consequences of airline consolidation is the desertion of airports that once served as hubs. The ensuing drop in flight traffic has forced airports in some of the biggest cities across the country to find new ways to remain profitable.
For the airport in Pittsburgh, the golden ticket may be hydraulic fracturing.
Budgets have been a growing problem for the Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT). From the time PIT became a hub for USAir back in the 1980s, its footprint was developed aggressively to keep up with the airline's needs. When the current terminal complex was completed in 1992, it was designed to accommodate 30 million passengers each year.
But after years of bankruptcies, industry consolidations and route changes, today's numbers are far from what were predicted in the 1990s.
In 2013, PIT had just 8 million passengers grace its terminals.
Why fracking? Why now?
For one thing, PIT's resources are in a uniquely easy position to be tapped. The airport spans more than 12,900 acres in a more or less continuous plot. Unlike other areas well suited for fracking in western Pennsylvania, the drilling advocates behind this project only have to deal with one decision-making body. As a result, the current project has been able to progress quickly, whereas similar projects can become mired in disputes stemming from multiple landowners.
One of the reasons development is happening now has a lot to do with budgeting. As published in the 2014 PIT budget, the airport will spend more than $65.3 million on debt payments this year alone (both toward interest and principle). While the overall budget keeps the airport in the black by about half that amount, the Allegheny County board that oversees the airport's operations is interested in increasing revenue however possible.
Finally, fracking at the airport isn't just about the money the natural gas itself will bring in. Having more money in the airport's budget increases leeway when it comes to the costs of its services. With the ability to decrease the costs of services to airlines, the airport hopes to bring more flights back to Pittsburgh, regardless of which airlines are involved.
PIT project details
According to CONSOL Energy, the company in charge of the exploration on the grounds of PIT, the development has "the potential to be a $1 billion opportunity."
The project plans include a total of six drilling pads scattered around the property, which will each employ horizontal drilling techniques and hydraulic fracturing to harvest multiple wells per pad. This approach will allow drillers to tap the resources trapped below the concourses and tarmacs as well as those from the surrounding property.
The project's duration is estimated to be somewhere between 4 and 4.4 years.