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Without ‘Cutting Into Muscle,’ Pittsburgh International Airport Is Navigating Fewer Passengers

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Pittsburgh International Airport
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Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis says the airport is functioning as needed, but would welcome more federal funding.

On today's program: Pittsburgh International Airport increased safety protocols for COVID-19, but fewer than half of their usual passengers are flying this holiday; Consumer trends expert Audrey Guskey predicts Black Friday will include more online shopping, social distancing and some crowds; and we hear from some still waiting on pandemic unemployment benefits, eight months in.

Allegheny Airport Authority CEO says travel is down but expects a slight uptick over Thanksgiving
(0:00 - 7:08)

Last Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance urging Americans not to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, because COVID-19 cases are soaring across the country.

Despite that, more than one million people flew last Friday, according to the Transportation Security Administration, and around 5,000 of them went through Pittsburgh International Airport.

“That's down 66 percent from a normal Friday before Thanksgiving,” says Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis.

There has been a slight uptick, however: “We have been seeing numbers creeping towards 6,000 [passengers], again on days that we would have expected 17,000.”

Cassotis says airport staff are taking extra precautions to reduce COVID-19 risk, including requiring face coverings, using ultraviolet light robots to disinfect floors, and reconfiguring seating.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine put out an order last week requiring those traveling from outside the state to get a negative COVID-19 test at least 72 hours prior to arriving or quarantine for 14 days when they arrive. Cassotis says airport employees traveling are complying with the new orders, but the airport is not enforcing the negative test or quarantine among passengers.

“It's the state's mandate,” says Cassotis. “We're doing our best with these orders that tend to come with very little notice, so, you know, we're catching up like everybody else.”

In addition to reduced travel, the airport will have a smaller budget: the one adopted for 2021 is $110 million less than this year’s.

Cassotis says some extra spending is cut, such as conferences, and others delayed, like the billion-dollar terminal modernization program.

But, as critical infrastructure, the airport will continue to operate, and despite budget shortfalls, Cassotis doesn’t expect any layoffs in the coming year. “If we were to go down any further in staff, we would be cutting into muscle as they say.”

Cassotis says further support from the federal government would be welcome, but she’s not banking on it.

Black Friday may “fizzle out,” says Duquesne University professor
(7:20 - 13:21)

With Thanksgiving comes the holiday shopper’s tradition of Black Friday. However, the retail event will be different this year in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Audrey Guskey, associate professor of marketing at Duquesne University and a consumer trends expert, says the event will likely include more online shopping and store pickups.

“The number of shoppers in each store will be limited, some of the stores are saying they may have a lottery where you get a certain time, you register,” says Guskey. “The in-store sales, the doorbusters won’t be as big because retailers, believe it or not, aren’t trying to encourage as many shoppers in the store.”

Guskey also says retailers have been spreading Black Friday sales out across many days, even weeks before Thanksgiving this year, and in year’s past, “so the magic, the luster, the sparkle of Black Friday hasn’t been there in a while. It’ll be strange this year, but I wonder in 2021 if we’re even going to have a Black Friday.”

“It’s gonna fizzle out, perhaps,” says Guskey.

Guskey says this year may be an opportunity for small businesses, often patronized on “Small Business Saturday” to outperform big box stores.

“Small businesses have a huge advantage in that it’s more personalized, smaller, a safer experience,” says Guskey. “Also, they've taken the big hit when it comes to the pandemic, and I think most people in their hearts feel, ‘If I’m going to be spending some money for Christmas, I’m going to spend more of it this year on small businesses in my community.’”

Guskey, who has been predicting Christmas retail sales for three decades, suspects spending will rival that of 2019.

“Typically, that’s bad news for retailers, but this year, that would be great news because we've had unemployment, safety concerns, supply chain issues,” lists Guskey. “So if retailers can even just hit the mark, that would be very good news.” says Guskey. This could amount to $731 billion dollars spent in November and December.

Guskey says despite the potential crowds and cold she will be out at stores to see how Black Friday is shaking out. She will also be working with the Dream Team student group to post the day’s happenings on social media. 

Pandemic unemployment assistance hasn’t been easy to navigate for freelance and gig workers
(13:30 - 18:00)

More than eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, some Pennsylvanians are still unable to access the unemployment benefits they need.

90.5 WESA’s Kate Giammarise reports that around 500-thousand residents use an ancillary unemployment system that's been riddled with problems.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.
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