PITTSBURGH -- Wedged between the McDonald's and the TGI Friday's in this city's glitzy new airport is what appears to be a high-tech video arcade.

But take a closer look. It's a branch of PNC Financial Corp.

Hoping to lure the millions of upscale consumers that are expected to pass through its home city's airport this year, PNC has built a futuristic outpost featuring the latest in technical gadgetry and gizmos.

Stopping Traffic

The Jetsonian design is designed to stop passers-by in their tracks. And it usually does.

"This is really wild," marvels Felipe Macia, an Iron City resident killing time at the branch while waiting for a friend to arrive from Chicago.

Establishing a major presence at airports will be a growing trend among banks, marketing experts predict.

And for good reason. Hurrying through the nation's airports are millions of professionals whose average personal income is $72,000, according to Airport Interviewing and Research, a consulting firm based in White Plains, N.Y.

Add to that the millions of airline employees and those who come to greet passengers, and you have traffic of more than a billion consumers a year worldwide.

"Airports are like horizontal high-rises," says Barry Deutsch, a marketing expert based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "There are more people working in airports than there are in some downtown office buildings."

PNC's airport branch, open around the clock, is decidedly in a league by itself. The 800-square-foot alcove of steel and glass features a semicircle of 19 television monitors showing advertisements for PNC's products and services.

ATMs Are Advanced

A bank of three teller machines lines the entire left wall; their many advanced features include displaying electronic images of deposited checks.

Though not yet fully operational, two interactive video booths will soon allow customers to see and speak with PNC representatives at the bank's downtown branch.

Strategically placed at the entrance are two computer terminals offering stock quotes and other market information. And descending like a man-made stalactite in the middle of the branch is a steel cone pointing into a circle of spotlights.

PNC keeps two attendants at the bank to navigate any confused travelers through the branch's equipment. Written directions are available after the employees leave at 7 p.m.

Once inside, customers can trade stocks, cash checks, or apply for a home equity loan.

Full Service Offered

"Virtually anything that you can do in a regular branch, you can do here electronically," insists A. William Schenck 3d, head of retail banking at PNC. Mr. Schenck won't disclose how much the branch cost to build.

While PNC's high-tech outpost is no ordinary bank branch, Pittsburgh's new international airport is no ordinary aviation terminal.

More than 50 retailers operate within the cavernous airport, fashioned of the steel and glass characteristic of the city's downtown.

"It's like a very high quality mall," says Michael Bell, president of B.A.A. Pittsburgh, the company that oversees the airport's retail operations.

The airport serves as USAir Group's main domestic hub, with feeder flights to all over the country, and commuter flights to such PNC markets as Erie, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg, Pa., and Louisville, Ky.

A High-Traffic Site

The bank estimates that 18 million people will pass through the airport in the first year of operation. They expect that figure to swell to 30 million people by the year 2000.

Among those expected to stroll CEOs of major U.S. companies, according to Mr. Bell.

Most of the travelers who touch down in Pittsburgh never leave the terminal. In sky-talk that makes Pittsburgh a hub airport, with some 60% to 65% of its travelers catching connecting flights.

That may be a mixed blessing for PNC, which has $45 billion in assets. Although the branch is centrally located, many of the passengers who will pass by will not be from areas served by PNC or its subsidiary banks.

Human Touch Lacking?

Many of these might take advantage of the bank's ATMs, but it's far from certain they will open new accounts or trade securities. And even if they want to, experts warn they may be intimidated by the branch's technology.

"People are not comfortable with machines," says Ira Weinstein, president of Airport Interviewing & Research, the consultancy firm. "A totally automated bank, won't generate the revenues of a more humanistic bank."

While some people don't like machines, others just can't master them. Charles Silborg, a Pittsburgher waiting for his daughter's flight, gave up fidling with stock quote terminal.

"It's impressive-looking, but half the stuff doesn't work," he says, frustrated. The machine is actually functioning perfectly.

But what the branch fails to cultivate in new deposits may be easily made up for in marketing points.

"It's really a billboard for the corporation," explains Craig T. Campbell, vice president of community banking.

PNC's branch was designed by John Ryan Co., a Minneapolis-based company specializing in bank marketing, merchandising, and branch design. Mr. Ryan says the branch was custom designed for PNC, but he says his company hopes to design other futuristic airport branches for other banks.

PNC says it's took early to judge the branch's success, but it says its brokerage services already have proven a big hit. Indeed, many customers, including a USAir pilot, were seen hovering around the stock quote terminals during a recent visit.

PNC does not have the Pittsburgh airport to itself. Rival Integra Financial Corp. operates a more conventional branch at the airport's main entrance.

Integra says its branch is targeted at airport employees and businesses and has a night depository. The company says it hasn't reached a verdict about its competitor's branch.

"It was a bold step for PNC," says Jeff Walker, marketing director for Integra Bank Pittsburgh. "We'll just have to wait and see how that works."

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