Christina Cassotis knew within three months of becoming CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority in 2015 that she wanted to build a replacement landside terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport.
It took 30 months of meetings with airline officials and others to determine that was indeed the right thing to do, says Cassotis. In those interim months, she accomplished much of a five-year plan that was underway for the airport.
“I got here and I could see what five years would look like, and I have to say we’ve done that in about two and a half,” she says. “We’re moving faster than I ever expected, and I credit the team. These are people saying, ‘We can finally do stuff — let’s go!’ It’s been an amazing study in change-management – when you allow everybody to participate and feel ownership in the success, that builds on itself and people want more.”
With a major construction project pending, Cassotis says she’ll soon cut down her traveling — a major component of her job — to focus on building. The existing landside terminal’s elevator, escalator and people-mover systems would need costly repairs in coming years, and the plan to build between the C and D concourses of the airside terminal (essentially filling in the existing X-shaped footprint) will produce a modern, efficient facility that lowers costs for the airlines.
“Our opportunity was to maximize this footprint and modernize it,” says Cassotis, who has successfully steered Pittsburghers away from the unrealistic notion that the airport someday could become a hub again. “It’s an origin and destination market, and you can be a really strong O&D market and really great airport.
“By understanding your market and what it is made of, what its component parts are, you can find the right fit in the world of airlines and their service,” she says.
Business and government leaders credit Cassotis with making bold, necessary decisions since the Airport Authority hired her, resulting in an upswing in business.
“She is very collaborative and she’s very sales oriented in a way that she wants to know what the community needs, and then she goes out and delivers that. The flights she has delivered have succeeded,” says County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who’s hoping to find someone similar as the next head of Port Authority.
“She loves her job, the competition and the success she works towards. It’s not about the leader of the organization dictating to the community; it’s about them working with the community to meet the community’s needs.”
In March, the Authority extended Cassotis’ contract for up to five years. Since then, others have recognized her leadership nationally. In August, the trade publication, “Airport Revenue News,” named her airport director of the year for increasing domestic and international flights at Pittsburgh International. The Airports Council International–North America gave Cassotis the ACI-NA Excellence in Visionary Leadership Award during its 2017 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Fort Worth on Sept. 16.
Under Cassotis, nonstop destinations have increased from 37 to 68 since her arrival, and the airport has gained eight new carriers, including WOW air, which flies to Iceland, and Condor Airlines, which flies to Germany. The airport ended 2016 with more than 8.3 million passengers, marking three straight years of gains.
“She has been a game-changer for us, a driving force to open up new markets for tourism,” says Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh, who attended the 23rd World Routes Development Forum with airport officials. “She has treated me, and us, like a partner since the day she came and we are lockstep with her. Every time we have a new flight to a new destination, it’s an opportunity for us.”
Starting in October, Qatar Airways Cargo will make Pittsburgh its latest freighter destination in the United States, becoming the first international airline with freighter service to Pittsburgh.
“We’ve been working on that for two years,” says Cassotis. “Bringing in Qatar, that’s a huge gold star for us. We’re finally participating and enabling the community to move forward, as opposed to being a drag on the community. For a long time, it was, ‘Oh, we’ve lost so much service.’ We’ve never had international freighter service before, and we didn’t have charter flights to China, which we’ll be welcoming next summer.”
Cassotis was surprised when Pittsburgh recruited her; she had no connections here.
“I said to my husband, ‘This is a diamond in the rough. This place is fantastic — the market, the facility. There’s so much potential here and if people would get on board, we can do amazing things.’ And that’s exactly what’s happened.
“We’ve got a very strong partnership with VisitPittsburgh, with the (Pittsburgh Technology Council), with the Allegheny Conference, and with county leadership,” she says. “Right from the beginning, the needs were clear. This community was so dramatically underserved when I got here. There was a team here at the airport that was a little shopworn; they were tired of not seeing nice stuff happen, so they were somewhat demoralized and defeated.”
It was a community-led decision to open the airside terminal to non-ticketed people, a decision announced in September, says Cassotis. “It’s really unique to this community; people like going to the airport. There’s a lot of retail out there that people don’t necessarily get in their shopping center, and they like being there — it’s an airport, it’s exciting.”
The daughter of a commercial airline pilot, Cassotis worked for Boston’s Logan International Airport for five years when another woman in the industry convinced her to run a consulting company that focused on airports.
“You fall into everything, right?” she says. “You end up where you’re meant to be.”
As a wife and mother of a 14-year-old son, Cassotis says she’s aware of the need to balance her career with attention to family. They chose to live in Sewickley in part because of the proximity and easy commute to the airport. At home, she relaxes by cooking: “I come from a big, fat Greek family — food is everything.”
But she’s often thinking of tackling the next challenge at Pittsburgh International.
“The big opportunity for improvement is the West Coast,” she says. “We have not done what we had hoped to do by now. That’s been a real challenge, but not for lack of market.
“There’s not an airline CEO who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘What are we going to do for Pittsburgh?’ so we have to be working from, ‘What can we do for them?’”