Pittsburgh airport improvements noted as CEO tries to expand activity
Community members began sending handwritten letters to Christina Cassotis at Pittsburgh International Airport shortly after she took over in January.
Some said, “Good luck.” Others hint at destinations they would like to see.
“People understand the link between this airport’s success and their quality of life,” Cassotis said. “It shows you how critical getting it right here is.”
Cassotis took over as CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority in mid-January. Airport observers say they sense change: from new niche airlines to quick-fix improvements. All of this, she said, supports the underlying goal of increasing destinations and flight activity.
“I’ve come in with the attitude that we are not waiting,” Cassotis said. “We are going out and we are proactively going after what we think we deserve, and we’re going to compete for it.”
Cassotis, paid $295,000 annually, has not run an airport before, but her background includes more than 20 years in aviation, including consulting for airports trying to attract flights. The 2004 departure of US Airways’ hub at Pittsburgh International meant a marked decrease in flights and passengers — a trend she is charged with reversing.
Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, said she met with Cassotis shortly after her arrival. They developed a survey for business leaders to get feedback about flights they want.
“She understands what she doesn’t know and tries to figure out how to gather that information,” Russo said. “She also knows what she does know, and she’s got a lot of experience outside of our region.”
Other groups with which Cassotis met include the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the Pittsburgh Business Travel Association, and the German-American Business Circle, as well as individual business leaders for companies such as PNC Bank and Michael Baker International.
Cassotis estimates she spends about 25 to 30 percent of her time meeting with community members, and another 25 to 30 percent traveling.
For the first time this September, Pittsburgh will host private meetings with airlines at the international World Routes conference in South Africa. Some of her travel has been prepping for that event, which can help secure flights to new destinations.
“I wanted to be sure I wasn’t saying to anybody, ‘Nice to meet you,’ ” she said. “I wanted to be sure I was saying, ‘Nice to see you again. Let’s continue the conversation.’ ”
William Lauer, principal and chief investment officer at Allegheny Capital, has more than 20 years of experience in the airline industry. He said no CEO has complete say over getting flights to operate here.
“Much of what has developed related to the local airport operations is really hostage to route network planning that is occurring inside the four major carriers in the country,” he said.
Satish Jindel, a transportation and logistics consultant from Franklin Park, said adding direct flights will be key to Cassotis’ success — and that of the airport.
“I think if she can do it, she will gain more favor and support for her initiatives,” he said.
New carriers this calendar year include OneJet with business-jet travel to the Midwest, and Porter Airlines with service to Toronto starting Sept. 21. Allegiant Air, which signed on last year, expanded service to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Long-term goals for Pittsburgh include securing West Coast direct flights and more international flights.
Inside the airport, some early changes are visible. International arriving passengers used to have to rescreen through TSA checkpoints— a problem caused by the airport’s layout. Staff now cordon off incoming passengers on their way through the area.
In June, the airport started a new permit for app-based car services such as Uber and Lyft, which can serve riders from the same curbs as taxis.
Last month, artist and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Baron Batch made a colorful installation on the ticketing level. Passengers watched him paint, and Cassotis received more feedback.
“I got a text from an employee who said, ‘This place is getting exciting again,’ ” she said. “Stuff’s happening. We’re really working to make sure that’s constant.”
Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.