October 3, 2008

Wallets Suffer in Flight Delays

By Mike Seate

Our local airfield is called Pittsburgh International, but in reality its border-jump flights are limited to Canada and Mexico.

That means reaching Europe, for example, requires booking a connecting flight to cities such as New York, Philadelphia or Chicago.

In my experience, about half the time those flights are delayed for some reason or another, plunking us poor Pittsburghers down in strange airports where we're told in no uncertain terms to wait 24 hours for the next connecting flight.

The last nine times this happened to me, I wasn't offered a free hotel room or meal by any of the airlines responsible for my delays.

What strikes a stranded traveler first about the absurdity of such a situation is just how noisy, crowded and cookie-cutter similar airport terminals tend to be.

After several years of regular travel, I sometimes forget which city's terminal I'm losing days in, because those places are so repetitive and unchanging.

One area, however, where our local airport is clearly different from other East Coast hubs is its retail section.

There's seldom much to do when stalled in airports except visit bars, and a pint of Guinness will set a traveler back only $5 at O'Brien's Grill and Pub at Pittsburgh International's airside terminal. Try that at the Jet Rock Bar and Grill in Philly and you'll pay $9.36, plus tax, for that beer.

Last weekend's marathon stay in JFK Airport in New York was a test of my patience (long lines everywhere), tolerance (the place is mad dirty) and economic savvy (killing time in bars threatened to kill my checking account). In a bar owned and operated by the Sam Addams craft beer chain, two beers and a pulled-pork sandwich set me back nearly $40.

At this rate, it seems we've managed to keep the terrorists out of our airports at the expense of letting in some clever thieves.

The reason our own airport's prices are so reasonable is that the Allegheny County Airport Authority adopted a county government philosophy from 1992, when the airport opened, says JoAnn Jenny, the airport's director of communications.

"We have guaranteed street pricing, the same as you'd pay at, say, the Mall in Robinson. This is unique, because around the country there's not a lot of airports who do it, and we monitor local prices through periodic audits," she said.

The Airport Authority takes the policy seriously enough to extend street pricing to the Sunoco gas station located at the airport's intersection with Route 60.

So if you find yourself stuck in Pittsburgh's airport, keep in mind: Things could be worse. As Ronald Reagan once so famously said: "It could be worse -- I could be in Philadelphia."

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