Pittsburgh International Airport partners with Carnegie Mellon University to imagine the airport of the future.

The airport of the future is now. 

Pittsburgh International Airport and Carnegie Mellon University inked a deal in April that turns the region’s airport into an innovation testbed for aviation and customer service technology. 

“We want to make sure that Pittsburgh International is industry-leading and innovative, and we are working with CMU for that reason,” said airport CEO Christina Cassotis. “Carnegie Mellon University is a world-class organization and a leader in innovation and technology that has helped fuel the Pittsburgh region’s growth as a tech giant.”

Pittsburgh International Airport and CMU signed a memorandum of understanding which outlines joint efforts that focus on collaboration in a real-world setting at the airport. The agreement will allow CMU students to use the airport as an innovation laboratory to develop new technology and systems that benefit the traveling public and improve customer service.

“We want to make sure that Pittsburgh International is industry-leading and innovative, and we are working with CMU for that reason.”

CMU President Farnam Jahanian said Pittsburgh International shares the university’s vision of making the Pittsburgh region a model for communities across the world, and that the airport plays a critical role in the economy. 

“This agreement will help our Metro21 Institute to continue and expand data-driven projects in a real-world setting,” said Jahanian. “With strengths at the nexus of technology and humanity, CMU is uniquely positioned to collaborate with aviation industry experts to optimize and enhance experiences for travelers and workers.”

Cassotis said the innovation will be pivotal as the airport embarks on a $1.1 billion Terminal Modernization Program. 

“What the airport of the future will look like is what we’re building,” Cassotis said. “The new terminal will have CMU’s footprint all over it.”

CMU and the airport have been working together for more than three years on a variety of projects, and with the partnership, students will have a dedicated space in the terminal for further research and development. 

Students already are engaged in several projects involving modernizing the customer experience, improving communication with passengers and employees and creating additional non-aeronautical revenue opportunities for the airport. 

One project involved a team from Carnegie Mellon’s Traffic21 research institute developing a mobile application that locates empty parking spots in the airport’s lots and guides drivers to the closest spot for convenience and optimal entry into the airport. Another project joined Pittsburgh International with Carnegie Mellon’s Cognitive Assistance Lab to develop a precise navigation system for the airport with the intention of making the airport more accessible for people with visual impairments. 

Additionally, the airport and CMU have collaborated on a series of student capstone projects to better understand the flow patterns of airport travelers, including passengers needing wheelchair assistance. The team plans to continue allowing capstones to serve as a breeding ground for initial research that systematically explores and identifies topics for funded research.

The partnership is a natural fit, according to Samantha Stedford, who has worked on developing the relationship between the airport and the university in her role as Senior Analyst for Strategic Initiatives for the Airport Authority. 

“This agreement is all about connecting people’s needs,” said Stedford. “Air travel should be seamless and accessible to everyone. With Pittsburgh’s growing tech economy, we believe there are several possibilities for innovation along with additional university and community partnerships.” 

Cassotis said airport officials intend to transform Pittsburgh International Airport into a leading-edge facility flexible enough to accommodate future needs of airlines and travelers. 

“What we’ll be able to do in that terminal, the new one, is accommodate any technology that’s coming that we can’t even imagine today – data about traffic flow, biometrics, etc. We’ll be able to curate the space to fit the needs of the market, and that is why we’re developing these partnerships and agreements moving forward.”