Christina Cassotis is CEO of Allegheny County Airport Authority and oversees developments at Pittsburgh International Airport. Like the famous steel city’s own business renaissance, the airport is witnessing record demand growth after moving from a hub operation to supporting what has become a booming O&D market. She is now in her fourth year in the role having held previously worked at ICF SH&E leading a global team of airport consultants in areas of competitiveness and business strategy. Previously she was directly employed in the airport sector as deputy director of communications at the Massachusetts Port Authority in Boston.
What is your current job, responsibilities and what three words best describe your role?
I am CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority which manages Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) and Allegheny County Airport (AGC). When I became CEO of the airport, the community was at best disillusioned, and more honestly, dismissive of the airport’s ability to help the region. It has been critical for me to reestablish faith and set a new vision for the airport so that we could regain the region’s trust and support. I am a Leader, instigator and strategist
Where do you call home?
Pittsburgh, Boston, Paris, Hong Kong, Maine – places I’ve lived, places I love, places I will live someday.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Running Pittsburgh International Airport is basically running a city. So, I’d have to say my days are never typical. No matter where I am or what day it is, it starts with a briefing of airport operations, issues and activities. Following that, I catch up with industry news via LinkedIn and Twitter as well as the FT, the WSJ, The Blue Swan Daily, and local news via the Pittsburgh papers and magazines. Whether I travel or not, I get in an early workout session before working. If I am in Pittsburgh, my workday often begins with a breakfast meeting with business or community leaders. On many days I have meetings – breakfast, lunch and dinner – downtown or in the community to keep the lines of communication open. My first check-in is usually with Nancy Schuler, my executive administrative assistant. We review the day’s schedule, correspondence, staff issues etc. She is invaluable – it’s an art form how she juggles the demands of my schedule, keeps me on time and on track and maintains a sense of humour. I hold a weekly senior leadership team meeting, where we have drafted a format that allows for true collaborative discussion on topics ranging from budget to human resource issues to capital or special projects. We also review dashboards that measure progress toward our goals, and we do a forward horizon scan of upcoming issues and events. And, every week, we do an exchange of what we call “high fives” where we recognise outstanding performance by a team or an individual. This may be the best part of the meeting, because it’s our team members that have truly turned this airport around. Speaking of our people, I try to devote as much time as I can when I am in the office to being available to meet with staff – not just in my office, but by visiting different teams wherever they are working. When I am not travelling, I try hard to be home for dinner with my family by 6:30pm or 7pm at least a couple of nights a week. This is so important to me personally as it helps me to stay grounded and balanced – trust me, the fact that I am the CEO of the airport doesn’t have that much sway with my son and husband! We have a rule that when we sit down to eat at a table as a family there are no phones allowed.
What are your main ambitions for the next 12 months in your role?
As CEO of the Authority that owns and operates Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport, the region’s premiere GA facility, my ambitions are to continue to do all we can to maximise the facilities for our passengers and partners. I intend to always look to continuously improve and build a resilient, and responsive organisation. We have a small team and we don’t operate in a traditional hierarchical fashion. We have to move fast, be efficient and maximise all of our talented team. I plan to continue to strengthen the competency of our team’s members so that they can do their best work in their fields and with each other. I expect that County Airport will complete its Master Plan. At PIT, we will move the Terminal Modernisation Program forward with design and getting prepared to approach the bond market. We will focus on our partnerships with the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which generously funds representation of the region’s arts, culture and economy at PIT. And we will drive innovation with projects such as our strategic partnership with Carnegie Mellon University to deploy various types of exciting research and development for the aviation industry. We will expand our air service offerings, increase our passengers and find ways to better serve our passengers.
What is the biggest obstacle currently influencing your business?
In general? In this country, it is an underestimation of an airport’s worth to its community. When an airport functions at its best – from a facility and customer service perspective – it offers amazing value to a community. Unfortunately we see governance structures that are bureaucratic at best and position airports as ATM’s at worst. We need our airports to operate well, to be run well and to be run by professionals the way we expect our universities and major corporations to be run.
What’s the best and worst career advice you have been given?
Best? If you understand people, you understand business – the reverse being true as well. Worst? Stay in your swim lane and don’t rock the boat. That is absolutely the worst advice to advance in your career.
If you could switch jobs with someone, who would it be?
A number of airline CEOs who can’t seem to figure out that talking the talk means nothing if you don’t walk the walk. I see a lot of bad leadership in this industry that negatively affects a lot of people. Good leadership – collaborative, transparent and innovative – should mean happier staff, customers and shareholders.
What does the aviation business mean to you?
It means connection – it means connecting to people and places in ways nothing else can and in ways that allow for better understanding among us all. To me, aviation is the path to world peace.
What book did you read last?
I read several books at once. I just finished Factfulness by Hans Rosling; Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved The Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery; and So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I am about to finish The Other Mrs. Walker – fiction by Mary Paulson-Ellis.
What are your three most overused words/phrases?
Yeah, yeah, yeah – I get it.”; “Who does he think he is, Joey-bag-of-donuts?” (This comes from my first boss in the industry, Phil Orlandella from East Boston, when I worked at Boston’s Logan Airport); “For F#ck’s Sake!”
If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would you like to see cast as you?
Yikes – I’m going with Sandra Bullock but if someone made a movie about my life, I’d be very interested to see who they wanted to play me.
What is your favourite aircraft type (current or old)?
Window or aisle seat?
Depends on the aircraft type, trip length and destination. In general, in business class, I choose window seats to be able to look outside and to be able to control the light. In coach, I prefer aisle seats so I am not at the mercy of anyone if I want to get up and move around.
Favourite flying tipple?
On a long international flight, I usually end dinner with a coffee and Baileys – which I only drink in the air. It’s not a regular drink of mine. Otherwise, sparking water with a splash of cranberry juice –which is not really a tipple, right?
Favourite travel spot? Or where would you like to go on a dream vacation?
One of my favourite places to travel for relaxation is Sanibel Island in Florida – no strip malls, no hotel chains and the best sea shelling in the world. I instantly relax on Sanibel. Otherwise, I am a city traveller – I love Paris, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York. My dream vacation is a trip around the world with time to explore places I have never been like Morocco, Oman, Cambodia, Buenos Aires, Moscow and more. I am a traveller. There are very few places I do not like nor have an interest in seeing/exploring/experiencing.
Which four individuals, living or dead, would you like to eat dinner with the most?
My father – he died 19 years ago at 58. There’s so much I want to ask him. He was a pilot. First for the Marine Corps, flying A4’s off of an aircraft carrier in the Vietnam War, then with Pan Am and finally with United. I’m the only one of the four of my siblings to follow him into aviation and to travel like he did. I would give up a lot to spend a last dinner with him.
Carolyn McCall – the former CEO of easyJet. I have been interested in her since she arrived on the scene at the London carrier. I am more interested now that she has moved into yet another industry.
Kakenya Ntaiya – a Masaai woman who underwent female genital mutilation (fgm) in a deal with her father to pursue an education. She holds a PhD, which she earned at the University of Pittsburgh, and now runs a school for girls whose parents promise no fgm and no child marriage.
Charlie Munger – vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. I am fascinated by people whose life is their work and vice versa – and who seem to have their heads screwed on straight.
What do you do to relax?
Long walks on the weekend. Yoga. Meditation. Reading. Cooking. Flying – as a passenger – it’s very creative time for me.
What keeps you awake at night?
Human suffering caused by other humans – especially anything involving kids. It devastates me when I read of children exploited or abused or not getting a childhood. My sister used to be a prosecutor and some of her cases involving kids were so awful. Very little causes me to lose sleep when it comes to work, at least for more than a night, because I believe there is always a way, always an answer and always something to learn.
What’s your secret talent that no one knows about?
I can sleep anywhere. I am usually asleep before wheels up and I adjust to the current time zone quickly.
People would be surprised if they knew?
Someday, I would like to get a PhD in comparative religion. I am fascinated by how religious values and teachings make their way into business decisions. I think a person’s religious ancestry, practiced today or not, is as important as gender, race, and ethnicity.
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