The Allegheny County Airport Authority ignites under Cassotis’ leadership


On Jan. 15, 2015, Christina Cassotis’ first day as CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, she got lost. She drove into a parking garage and remembers thinking, “I know I’m not in the right place, and I don’t even know how to get out of here.”

But once she got her bearings, Cassotis went to work and hasn’t slowed down since.

One of her first acts was to meet with leadership. She asked them to put together two one-pagers — one telling her everything she should know about them, and the other saying what they thought she should do.

“I spent a lot of time getting to know the team, touring the facilities, spending time with each board member one-on-one, and then getting right into some key community partnership discussions with organizations I knew I would need,” she says. “That was my first week. It was intense.”

Cassotis says the first six months all she did was work, sleep and commute back to Boston on weekends because her family hadn’t moved yet.

“I knew that I had to set that tone right from the beginning, and we had to establish a pace quickly that we would continue,” she says. “They say, ‘Begin as you intend to go forward.’ I had to begin the way that I wanted us to be running within a year.”

That enthusiasm and drive has pumped new life into the authority’s two airports, which employ more than 450 and operate with about $138 million in annual revenue. Here’s how Cassotis has revitalized the Allegheny County Airport Authority and shed new light on the future.

Right skill set for the job

The board of directors recruited Cassotis to expand the nonstop flights, destinations and seats with a new vision and sense of possibility. She was working at a consulting firm, where she advised airport management on competitiveness and attracting airlines.

“When I got the call for Pittsburgh, I was unsure that it would be a good fit,” she says. “I had only been to Pittsburgh once for a conference.”

After a few interviews, and an opportunity to learn and see more, she changed her mind.

“I was doing my homework, looking at data, looking at the foundations of the economy — where the economy was positioned, how the city was rebounding — and just thought, ‘This is a diamond in the rough here, and I would love to be part of having the airport catch up to where the community is. I would love to do this work,’” Cassotis says.

“Everything just worked. The timing was right. The city is a fantastic place, and the airport needed somebody with my skill set, so it was a good fit.”

She’s never run an airport before, but Cassotis says she’s using skills from two previous professions — bartending and consulting.

“In both cases, you have to learn to deal with different types of people, personalities, in varied cultures, political situations,” she says. “You’ve got to understand context continually, and you have to keep a lot of people happy at the same time.”

The role of an effective CEO is to have a vision or to facilitate a vision, and to get it done, Cassotis says. It’s to lead the team, set the pace and expectations, and then to live them out.

“If you’re going to expect people to work hard, you’d better be willing to work hard,” she says.

Lifting expectations

After U.S. Airways closed its mega-hub, 13 million fewer passengers came through the Pittsburgh airport. Cassotis says the staff spent 10 years cutting costs, hunkering down and figuring out how to operate without a hub carrier.

“Expectations had been managed down,” she says. “My biggest challenge was to lift the lid off, let the light in and say to everybody, ‘Hey, it’s a new day. Let’s do this.’”