How To Turn Around An Airport In Four Years

When Christina Cassotis got to the Pittsburgh International Airport as CEO, it was a ghost town haunted by the departure of US Airways as a hub. Today, the airport is thriving and investing in the future. Here’s how she turned things around.

Technically, Christina Cassotis is the CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority—but that’s a fancy way of saying she’s in charge of the Pittsburgh International Airport, a sprawling massive structure that sends off and takes in a total of nearly 850,000 each month.

It’s a role she was born to take. “I grew up in Southern New Hampshire, my dad was a pilot for Pan Am. He went onto United. [Before that], he was a military marine corps pilot.”

Out of college, she accepted a job doing media relations for Massport, which owns and operates the world-famous Logan Airport in Boston (one of the busiest airports in the country). From there, she went into consulting for a company that focused specifically on commercial aviation. “I worked with airports on issues of competitiveness. How get more airlines in? How do you keep them? How do you make more money? How do you work on infrastructure development?”

After growing that practice into a worldwide operation, Cassotis got an unlikely call. “I was asked, ‘What do you think about Pittsburgh?’ I said, ‘Not much.’ I had been here once in my entire life. I didn’t know anyone from Pittsburgh.’

In 2004, the airport lost its status as a hub for US Airways and Cassotis took on a bit of an usual tact in getting the job: “I said, ‘If you want someone to tell you how to be a hub again, let’s just call it a day and I’ll [move along].” She didn’t see that happening and a lot of her colleagues in the airport industry told her to stay away from Pittsburgh, but Cassotis saw an opportunity and took the job in 2015.

“What I found was a pretty beat up team, a whole lot of unused space…you’d walk through the airport and [wonder], ‘What happened here?’ It was a little down and out.” Money that could have been used for infrastructure was used to pay off the debt US Airways left when it departed the airport. From its heyday as a hub to 2015 when she took the job, they had gone from 110 nonstop destinations to 37.

Half the team was happy to see a fresh face, the other half didn’t have much faith that Cassotis would last long in the job. Four years and 35 months of continuous growth later, it’s fair to say she has proven the cynical half wrong—of those that are still working there. “The people who believe me stepped up. The people who didn’t believe me aren’t here anymore.”

Pittsburgh as an origin

At the beginning, Cassotis says she was aggressive in bringing in more air service and pitching the airlines about the City of Pittsburgh. She didn’t just see Pittsburgh as a hub town, she saw it as a destination and origin market—similar to Boston, San Diego and Portland, Oregon. The city had amazing universities, restaurants, a diversified economy, a robust business economy, and to top it off, Uber was doing its driverless testing in the city.

“You put all that stuff together and you start talking to airlines and they’re like, ‘I didn’t know that. I had no idea. I thought it was still a dirty old steel mill,’” she says. The airport can talk all they want about operating in a safe and efficient way, but airlines just assume that you’re doing that anyway, Cassotis says. That’s not a selling point for them.

But it was more than just touting Pittsburgh, it was highlighting how Pittsburgh fits into an airline’s business network and its growth strategies. “I don’t talk about why Pittsburgh is great. I talk about why Pittsburgh is great for them.”

She also had to work with national airlines that weren’t solely focused on the hub-and-spoke model—carriers like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant, as well as regional and non-U.S. carriers. After bringing those airlines aboard, the nonstop destinations have gone back up from its low of 37 to 67—and the airport has seen an increase of two million annual passengers.

Moreover, the infrastructure projects that were put on hold for a long time are back on. The airport just released plans for a new $1.1 billion renovation that will add a new terminal. There will also be investments into technology that will help the airport “leapfrog into the future,” she says. They are also taking advantage of being one of the only airports in the country to drill for natural gas by building a microgrid to help airlines lower utility costs. It will also be used for economic development.

Waxing philosophical

The ability to lower utility costs for airlines is an example of Cassotis’ philosophy in motion. It’s not just a big thing for Pittsburgh Airport, it’s big for the airlines they serve. She says the best advice she received throughout her career is that if you understand people, you understand business. “It has to start with people buying in. There has to be something in it for them.”

She says the other important philosophy she holds close as a leader is accountability. “I am always amazed at the very technically smart people who have an inability to hold colleagues accountable. What we’ve done is create a culture of cross accountability. It’s definitely performance based. It’s led to one and one equals three, in ways that I would have never expected and faster than I could have imagined.”

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