When she came on board as CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, Christina Cassotis had a straightforward mandate: Bring more flights to Pittsburgh. Over the past 12 months, Pittsburgh International Airport has added five new airlines and 16 nonstop destinations. The latest addition was Frontier Airlines which is returning to the Pittsburgh market after a four-year absence. Frontier announced earlier this month that it will offer nonstop service from Pittsburgh to Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas and Orlando, beginning in June.
We asked Cassotis about life at the airport in the post-hub era, what’s surprised her most about Pittsburgh and what she wants to see more of at the Airmall.
How would you assess your first year; have you accomplished what you were hoping to?
I’d say we are very pleased with our progress. We hit the ground running right away and looked at our strategies market by market, carrier by carrier. We targeted meeting airlines where they are. We have a tremendous amount more to do, but we are where we should be. We’re having those conversations about moving more into the West Coast markets, further into Canada and international markets which takes longer.
The business community has been hankering for a direct flight to Germany for a long time. Is that something you think this airport can support?
Yes. This market is underserved. There is pent-up demand here that translates all the way across the pond, into the UK and Germany. We could sustain more direct flights.
What do you say to people who are still hung up about Pittsburgh losing its status as a hub airport (which happened in 2004)?
The hub is not our focus. Look, Pittsburgh is no longer a hub, and it has everything to do with the airlines and how they can make money. Airlines don’t serve airports, they serve communities, and we have a growing economy, a lot of activity and momentum. But we can’t go backward, we have to move forward. We have two of three lowest cost airlines in the country here in Pittsburgh, and as we have more competition in the market, we see the fare profiles lower.
Your father was a pilot, so you grew up around the airline industry. How different is the industry now compared to back then?
Completely different. My father was a pilot for Pan Am, and all those airlines that were around when I was growing up: Pan Am, Eastern, TWA, they’re all gone. They were regulated and so passed on any cost increases to customers. There wasn’t the kind of competition there is today. Pilots all flew internationally and there was no hub and spoke system. The world has changed so much since [my father] was a pilot.
Last year there was talk about upgrading the concessions at the Airmall. What would you like to see happen there?
We see a lot of opportunity to serve our passengers, and give them a sense of Pittsburgh. There’s a fine balance between national brands like McDonald’s and Starbucks, which are both important for the airport to have, and familiar to travelers. But our food community was ranked No. 1 by Zagat, so we’d like to see more local food offerings.
What has surprised you most about Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers?
One of the things I love most about Pittsburgh is there’s a very strong sense among the business leaders and civic leaders about what this city meant to this country. This city built this country. And I’m struck continually by offers to help. I’ve had numerous conversations where someone says “you know who you really should talk to” and then people follow up to make connections.
There’s a real sense of ownership and pride in this airport in this community. I love how people here understand the link—and this does go back to the hub system—between a vital, growing airport and a vital, growing community. There are communities where they take that for granted and no one here takes that for granted.
How have you been able to move the airport ahead so much in such a short time?
I was hired for a very specific reason, it was very clear: More service. And so I came in with a vision, and looked to see where holes and gaps were. And the only way that works with a new leader who happens to be an outsider is if you have a strong team behind you. I cannot stress how critical that’s been—I’ve watched the team here transform itself from a reactive team to a proactive one. That only works if everyone buys in. It works because we’re all going in the same direction.