July 31, 2008

Airport Authority Defends Expenditures

By Bonnie Pfister, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 31--The Allegheny County Airport Authority spent thousands of dollars on Pirates and U.S. Open golf tickets, stays at hotels in Pittsburgh and a farewell party at the Duquesne Club for its former executive director.

The authority, which operates Pittsburgh International Airport, acknowledged Wednesday that it spent $15,712 toward tickets and food for 522 people for a June 24 game against the Yankees at PNC Park when it hosted the Airports Council International-North America's marketing conference last month. Sponsors picked up an additional $20,000 for the tab.

The authority also spent $2,200 to take officials from US Airways and Southwest Airlines to the U.S. Open last summer. The agency also paid $4,200 for a party for 40 top staffers in honor of Kent George, the authority executive director who left in September.

Details about the authority's spending first were reported last night by Tribune-Review news partner WTAE-TV.

Calls to authority Director Brad Penrod were referred to spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny, who defended the expenditures as normal costs of networking and trying to increase business at and around the Findlay airport.

"We're an economic generator for the region. The local government officials, the Allegheny Conference (on Community Development), VisitPittsburgh -- they expect us to operate this airport as a world-class facility, and to get and maintain quality air service here," Jenny said. "You have to meet with these people in person."

The expenses were paid out of the authority's operating budget, which is fed by terminal and gate leases and other fees to carriers; parking, rental-car and concession fees; and lease income from tenants at Airside Business Park and other industrial parks.

Capital expenditures -- primarily the debt service on the $1 billion terminal that opened in 1992 -- have a more direct impact on taxpayers.

In December, county Chief Executive Dan Onorato transferred $19.9 million in state gambling money to the authority, part of a county obligation to airport debt and development. Onorato and airport authority officials say the amount always was designed to be an investment by the county in the airport -- not a loan.

Some County Council members, however, disagree. They say the money should have stayed with the county and could have been used as an alternative to a controversial 10 percent drink tax imposed in January.

"It bodes poorly for the airport authority to engage themselves in this type of behavior," said County Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park. "It shows again how when you have authorities that are unelected, they become unaccountable."

Jenny said showcasing a region's attractions is a requirement of any airport that hosts the trade conference. She said the PNC Park event helped to sell Pittsburgh as a destination to airline officials who choose routes.

The tickets to the U.S. Open golf championship at Oakmont Country Club were for George and senior staffers from airlines that the authority then was wooing for expanded business in the region, Jenny said. Later that year, Southwest increased its flights to the region, and US Airways chose Pittsburgh over Charlotte, N.C. and Phoenix as the location for its 600-employee operations and control center. It opens in October and is expected to employ 600.

WTAE also raised questions about $8,388 the authority spent to put up 11 authority employees at the Sheraton Station Square during a 2006 conference. Jenny said that expense was justified because those staffers were working from 6 a.m. to midnight during a meeting of American Association of Airport Employees.

Asked whether the expenditures were unreasonable, given the fees it charges carriers, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines described the airport authority as "a great partner."

"They've been very transparent with their costs, and they've done an excellent job of mitigating their costs, especially during a very volatile time in the industry," said spokesman Chris Mainz.


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