CMU president Farnam Jahanian, Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis Back row, L to R: Raj Rajkumar, director of CMU's Metro 21 Smart Cities Institute Sam DeMarco, Allegheny County councilman-at-large Conor Lamb, congressman, 18th District, Pennsylvania Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County Executive. Image courtesy of Pittsburgh Airport.

In 2017, Pittsburgh International Airport was named Airport of the Year by Air Transport World, a respected trade publication.

Now Pittsburgh International wants to be known as the world’s smartest airport.

On April 19th, the Allegheny County Airport Authority signed an agreement with Carnegie Mellon University to provide cutting-edge technology to enhance travelers’ experiences.

“We have to keep innovating to make sure we’re doing the right thing for our community, and also the industry,” says Christina Cassotis, CEO of the airport authority. “It’s all about moving forward and getting ready for the new terminal we will be building.”

Last September, $1.1 billion was earmarked for a new terminal and other improvements at the airport, with construction slated to begin in 2019. Until then, faculty and students from CMU’s Metro21 Smart Cities Institute will develop apps and other smart technologies. Uses include more efficient security screenings–like knowing when to arrive when lines are shorter–and easier access to parking and where to find the empty spaces–and beyond.

Farnam Jahanian, the president of CMU, says the partnership reflects two trends: societal and economic transformation through unprecedented access to digital technology and information, and the increase of population in urban areas.

“In many ways CMU and the Pittsburgh region are at the center of this digital rise, as well as the shift that you see in population,” Jahanian says. “It’s really a new paradigm, if you think about it, what we’re trying to do at this airport — using scientific research and innovation to address the most intractable challenges facing our rapidly growing cities and metropolitan areas.”

The CMU researchers will be charged with making improvements at the current airport and consulted on plans for the new terminal. Cassotis says it’s important to give the Metro21 team the freedom to be innovative and think outside standard parameters. Different perspectives are not only going to be encouraged but will be crucial when construction begins on the new terminal.

“What we really care about is how do we incorporate flexibility into our new building so that as technology changes, we can accommodate those changes,” Cassotis says. “We really want to be working with people who have an eye towards the future, and we are looking at the world through an A.I. lens that Carnegie Mellon has just been vetted for. When we apply those processes, how can we look for more robust analysis of our data in order to do a better job for our passengers, our visitors and our tenants?”

Funding for Metro21’s work at the airport is provided by The Heinz Endowments, Henry L. Hillman Foundation, and Richard King Mellon Foundation. State and federal grants are expected to supply additional funding, as are companies that work on airport innovations.

Rege Behe

Rege Behe is an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor. A native of Trafford, Pa., he's covered school board meetings, reviewed concerts, and interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winners including Michael Chabon, Ron Chernow, and David McCullough. He never goes anywhere without a book, likes to hike, and is fond of animals.