Pittsburgh International Airport employee Bob Mrvos jokes that you could golf in the terminals' corridors — they're that empty, especially compared with other airports he flies into in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.
"You walk through those airports and you can barely get through the hallway there's so many people," Mrvos says. "And when you land in Pittsburgh, it's like the airport's closed."
But the airport isn't closed — it just feels that way, with its unused gate doors and baggage carousels. Mrvos works at the Airmall's PGA Tour Shop. He remembers when the airport was a hub for US Airways.
"At that period of time I was working in a steel mill, and I traveled almost weekly. The airport was packed at that period of time," Mrvos says.
The airport was built for bustle. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald says it was transformed in 1992 with extreme optimism — for 30 million passengers a year, many of them US Airways fliers.
"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," Fitzgerald says.
At its peak, 20 million passengers were passing through annually.
But then came Sept. 11, 2001. US Airways stopped using Pittsburgh as a hub three years later. 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 also from services for fliers such as dry-cleaning or pet care.
"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?" she says.
At Dallas-Ft. Worth, there is 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.
Fitzgerald says fracking won't be the end-all. Eventually office space will be built on the land. And he hopes the revenue will offset the costs of running the airport.
"By lowering the cost using some of the shale money, we will be able to attract the flights and start to stabilize those revenues," Fitzgerald says.
Over the next 20 years, the county hopes to make $500 million from gas royalties.