DON GONYEA, HOST:
When we hear about upheaval in the air travel industry, usually we're talking about the impact on airlines. But airports have been scrambling for passengers and looking for creative ways to make money. Forty-five percent of airport revenue comes from sources other than gate fees; that's according to the Federal Aviation Administration. But here's something you didn't see coming - in Pittsburgh local officials believe the answer to their airport's economic woes may lie in the shale gas beneath the runways. From member station WESA, Erika Beras reports.
ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: Bob Mrvos jokes you could golf in the corridors of the airport's terminals. It's just so empty, especially compared to other airports he flies into in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.
BOB MRVOS: When you walk through those airports, you can barely get through the hallway, there's so many people. Then when you land in Pittsburgh, it's like the airport's closed.
BERAS: But the airport isn't closed. It just feels that way with its unused gate doors and baggage carousels. Mrvos works at the Air Mall's PGA Tour shop. He remembers when the airport was a hub for U.S. Airways.
MRVOS: That period of time, I was working in a steel mill, and I traveled almost weekly. And the airport was packed at that period of time.
BERAS: Pittsburgh International Airport was built for bustle. Allegheny County executive Rich Fitzgerald says it was constructed with extreme optimism for 30 million passengers a year, many of them U.S. Airways flyers.
RICH FITZGERALD: They basically designed the airport. We built it for them. And we built it for them, and entered into a long-term lease that they were going to use it as their hub.
BERAS: At its peak, 20 million passengers were passing through annually, but then came 9/11. U.S. Airways stopped using Pittsburgh as a hub. Airlines merged, fuel prices rose and the recession hit. That's reduced the annual number of passengers the airport sees to 8 million. Deborah McElroy of Airports Council International North America says many airports are making money not just from gate fees, but from services for flyers such as dry cleaning or pet care.
DEBORAH MCELROY: Over the last 10 years, airports have doubled the amount of non-aeronautical revenue. Again, the focus being how can we increase the revenue that we generate in order to keep air service?
BERAS: At Dallas-Fort Worth, there's gas extraction. The largest blueberry producer in Georgia is at an airport. Lots of airports have retail - some have golf courses, others generate solar energy, some have explored water or grazing rights. Pittsburgh's airport sits on 9,000 acres. Under those acres is the Marcellus shale, a fertile and profitable rock formation full of natural gas. Consol energy just broke ground and will begin extracting gas deep underneath the airport, including under the runways. Allegheny County executive Rich Fitzgerald says fracking won't be the end-all. Eventually they'll build office space on the land, and he hopes the revenue will offset the costs of running the airport.
FITZGERALD: By lowering the cost using some of the shale money, we will be able to attract the flights and start to stabilize those revenues.
BERAS: Over the next 20 years, the county hopes to make $500 million from gas royalties. For NPR News, I'm Erika Beras in Pittsburgh.
GONYEA: This is NPR News.
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