Wheels Up? What's Next for PIT
Under a new CEO, Pittsburgh International Airport heads into its 25th year while attempting to woo flyers and flights and leave its empty, post-hub days behind.
photos by david kelly and Richard Cook
On a steamy August evening, Concourse A at Pittsburgh International Airport resembles the first moments of a sedate birthday party. Balloons, cookies and fake champagne await guests, passengers on the first non-stop Southwest Airlines flight from the airport to LAX. The new daily flight will depart a few seats shy of a sell-out at 7:10 p.m. Before they board, travelers are snapping selfies with a glammed-up customer-service crew impersonating Marilyn Monroe, little mermaids and the tuxedoed duo from “Dumb and Dumber.” After Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis cuts a ceremonial ribbon, she hurries down the concourse towards the central core’s gleaming expanse of terrazzo floor, designed by Carnegie Mellon University artist Clayton Merrell. Instead of the familiar clickety-clack of suitcase wheels on grey tiled floors, the retail center echoes with the clinking glasses of a new martini bar.
Since arriving in the city in January 2015, Cassotis has overseen these changes and more. But despite its highest passenger numbers since 2012 — some 8 million per year — Pittsburgh International is not yet a city that never sleeps. Twelve years since the departure of its US Airways hub, PIT — which opened in October 1992 — is adjusting to its new reality as it heads into its 25th year. As it continues to dig out from under debts lingering from its $800 million construction and attempts to lower costs, it battles a volatile industry with few guarantees while attempting to provide flyers with more flights and airside sizzle.
“We know what the US Airways airport looked like,” Cassotis told a recent audience. “What does the Pittsburgh airport look like?”
Cassotis, 52, tirelessly sells her vision of that new image, and she has enlisted powerful partners to help build it. Business and tourism leaders line the stage each time she announces new service, and they fly with her to sell the city at airline conferences such as World Routes, an international, speed-dating-style confab, to woo coveted international and domestic flights. And she clearly has the confidence of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who joined her in August at a news conference Downtown to announce the resumption of flights to Harrisburg.
“Our three daily non-stops to Harrisburg [on Southern Airways, a Memphis-based carrier] are the first connections we’ve had to the state capital since 2008,” he told the crowd. “Two years ago, we had 37 non-stops from the airport.” By September, new flights to Austin, Puerto Rico and three more regional airports brought the current direct flight total to 63.
Christina Cassotis and Richard Belotti, Vice President of Planning for the Allegheny County Airport Authority
Fitzgerald says of the airport’s first female leader, “Christina brings a level of energy and experience. I think she knows the industry as well as anybody. She knows what markets can be served from Pittsburgh and what planes we can fill up. She’s able to take that energy out into the community and do a great job of selling.”
As the national economy recovers and fuel prices stay low, airlines are in the mood to expand. Low and ultra-low-cost carriers are inking deals with smaller markets. Such new names as Allegiant, Porter, OneJet, Southern and Frontier have joined American Airlines, Southwest and other airlines at PIT; charter flights to Cuba will begin later this year. Passenger traffic is growing at more than 1.5 percent a year, though that modest gain lags well behind its peer airports.
“Airlines will look to expand into markets that they wouldn’t when fuel prices are high. But they still focus on fundamentals,” says Cassotis. “They never take a risk on a market that doesn’t have traffic, but they will look to grow faster. So that benefits us.”
In her first stint as an airport CEO, Cassotis directs 475 employees and coordinates the work of 6,000 at the international airport in Findlay Township and the county airport in West Mifflin. Her husband and 13-year-old son followed her to Sewickley, where the family resides. With seven years’ experience as managing officer for airport services at ICF SH&E, a global team of airport consultants, the New England native brings an outsider’s global overview of the industry to her new post. Blunt, opinionated and impatient, she spends much of her time selling Pittsburgh to airlines — and vice versa.
When first approached by a headhunter to succeed Bradley D. Penrod following his removal by the airport authority board in 2014, Cassotis says she knew the airport’s situation. “[The headhunter] said, ‘They’re looking for someone with significant experience.’ I said, ‘They’re gonna need it, ’cause it’s not going to be a hub again. I’ll tell you right now: if they have any illusions that it’s going to be a hub again, let’s not waste everybody’s time.’” In dismal numbers, she saw the possibility for improvement — if she had support.
David J. Malone, president and CEO of Gateway Financial Group, met Cassotis during the airport CEO search and was an early advocate. “It was crystal clear to me that she understood the industry, and the direction she proposed was substantially different from the other candidates. There was no doubt that she was the leading candidate,” he recalls. Since her hiring, he says, Cassotis has executed on those plans. “She’s the Michael Phelps of airport directors,” says Malone.
Cassotis’ first analysis of the airport was simple. “It was completely underutilized,” she says. “The lack of service was clear to me — it was gaping. Wow. How has this not happened yet? What are the efforts? Who’s involved? My feeling in the first interview was, frankly, this had to be a two-way fit. Given the enormity of the task, to reposition Pittsburgh in the minds of major decision-makers at the right airlines, it was going to take more than just me. It would take a team. It would take a community.”
From her first contacts with business leaders, Cassotis heard a clear message: Pittsburghers want more non-stops — now. Atop the local wish list: better regional connections, a second non-stop to San Francisco and scheduled international flights beyond Delta’s seasonal non-stops to Paris. “We have as many requests for Harrisburg flights as we do for San Francisco and London,” she acknowledged at the Southern Airways announcement.
The local connections are happening, thanks in part to federal subsidies for essential air service. The more glamorous routes — well, Cassotis continually cautions that attracting those takes a lot longer. Meanwhile, her team gathers data to measure demand and support for longer non-stops.
In Cassotis’ view, Pittsburgh’s situation is not unique. “Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis — any hub that was taken down has space. It’s not so much that space is not being filled — it’s that market needs are not being met. The fact that we still only have one non-stop to San Francisco 10 months of the year is obscene. It’s obscene,” she repeats.
“It’s hard for me to understand how hard it’s been to get that flight, given the tech-community growth and given the fact that we are the largest unserved market in the country from San Francisco,” she says. “We are talking to the tech community, the tech council and individual companies. When the second non-stop comes in, it will be flown.” Business leaders are discussing a new air-service coalition that will help the airport to compete with cities that offer lucrative incentives to airlines.
When Qatar officials acknowledged in May 2015 that Cassotis had visited the tiny Middle Eastern state’s national carrier, Pittsburgh learned the local CEO had pitched the airline. Cassotis refuses to divulge specifics about discussions with any foreign carriers, and she cautions that Pittsburgh service from Gulf carriers is at least five to seven years away.
“We are not even asking for decisions now, to be clear,” she says. “The Gulf carriers have a lot of aircraft on order and a lot of aircraft to place. Until they cover the large markets, they’re not going to start looking at the medium-sized markets.”
An Appetite for Europe.
Long-haul flights aside, Pittsburghers with passports long for a revival of past non-stop service to Europe. Cassotis gets it: seasonal non-stops to Paris aren’t enough.
“In my experience as a consultant, it’s three to five years from the time you start talking to [international carriers] before they make a decision. Since I’ve gotten here I have tried to accelerate that timeline, given the fact that market is so mature — especially to London, especially to Frankfurt.”
Many Pittsburgh flyers, leery of missing connections in Philadelphia or Newark for overseas flights, opt to drive to other domestic airports. Direct service from Pittsburgh to London could recapture those bookings. A data-mining project aimed to uncover the number of Pittsburghers who purchase international tickets departing from Dulles. The results on those “leaked” passengers were surprising.
Each year, 33,000 passengers fly between Pittsburgh and Heathrow in London, and 11,000 Pittsburghers fly to London from elsewhere — a total of 44,000 just between those two cities, according to airport statistics. “That’s enough [to fill non-stop flights],” says Cassotis. “Then we look at everyone going [from Pittsburgh] to Amsterdam, De Gaulle, anything in range beyond London. We can look at origin and destination data for that.
“Then we look at how Pittsburghers are getting there today. Can we make a case? That’s what we do — market by market by market, and we keep testing that. It turns out that when you look at total Europe, we are the top underserved market in the U.S., OK? Nobody beats us,” she says, laughing. “Charles De Gaulle is a very good service for us. London is a much bigger market than Paris. And Germany is great for us because of what we call a community of interest, with so many German companies here.”
Selling Pittsburgh as an international market brings annual delegations from the city to the annual World Routes conference, held in September in Chengdu, China. As airport officials briefed airline representatives on the market’s demand for international flights, the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and VisitPITTSBURGH made a broader case.
Chamber President Matt Smith, an airport authority board member, pitches the region’s economy. “When you look at where we’re growing, it’s all sectors. Financial services, energy, robotics, advanced manufacturing. The breadth and depth of growth is where we shine. That leads to demand. We’ve seen the alignment of tourism, tech and the business community, all rallying around the airport since Christina came in.”
“What we sell is a real, authentic American experience,” says Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPITTSBURGH. “We mention the third-party accolades, particularly the Travel Channel [which named Pittsburgh an All-American vacation destination in 2014]. The Warhol, Fallingwater, our rivers, our food scene, our friendliness — and safety, which is a very big deal to international audiences. And of course, our proximity to Washington [D.C.] and Niagara Falls.”
Davis supports attracting new flights but echoes Cassotis’ caution. “We have 11 million overnight visitors in Allegheny County each year. You can’t change that with one flight. And every American airport is asking these people to support their flights. But we represent Pittsburgh airport as the tourism community and the business community. It’s a powerful message: it’s not just the airport — it’s the community that will support you.”
Christina Cassotis and Richard Belotti, Vice President of Planning for the Allegheny County Airport Authority
A Sense of Place.
To Davis, tourism and a dynamic airport move in lockstep. “Our visitation has goes up every year. We have to have the support of the airport. If it is not successful, we will start to lose conventions,” he argues. Visitors’ first impressions start at the arrival gate. Not only must concourses and rest rooms be immaculate: Cassotis and Davis agree that a world-class airport must create a sense of place, offering attractions, retail and dining options unique to the ’Burgh.
Clayton Merrell’s gleaming terrazzo mural, “The Sky Beneath Our Feet,” replaced a worn grey tile floor after 18 months of installation. The $4 million public-art project features murals of five iconic Pittsburgh images. Works from The Andy Warhol Museum and the installation of the whimsical Fraley’s Robot Repair showcase local pop culture at the airside terminal. (Perhaps the quirkiest pair of Pittsburgh artworks flank the airside escalators: costumed statues of a young George Washington and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris. Cassotis says she doesn’t know if they might move, but she promises, “They’re never gonna leave.”)
The Pittsburgh Strip Market, opened in July at the central shopping core, offers iconic brands. Cassotis has enlisted the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to help modernize Concourse C’s Kidsport. The popular play spot, adjacent to a new lounge for nursing mothers, was the first of its kind in the nation, but it needs an upgrade. Live music performances have popped up at the landside terminal. “We have a fantastic food scene in this city that is not represented at the airport,” says Cassotis. “That needs to happen — for meeters and greeters (who use the landside terminal) and arriving and departing passengers.”
Upscale shopping options, including Furla handbags and Desigual, a Barcelona-based clothing line, give a glossier look to the retail line-up. “Pittsburghers know how to shop at the airport, and they do,” Cassotis says. Pittsburgh is a national leader in revenue per boarding passenger, and she believes increasing their retail spending is a key to future growth.
Bigger revenues are essential. CONSOL Energy’s payments for gas-drilling rights on the airport property make a contribution, and Shell’s planned cracker plant in Beaver County may offer more onsite development opportunities. But although they are inching downward, the airlines’ costs per enplaned passenger remain relatively high. This year, the airport’s CPE is $12.88, compared to the U.S. average of $10.97 in 2015.
William R. Lauer, principal of airline investor Allegheny Capital, says cost-cutting must continue, even as investments in passenger service increase. “If the savings attendant to the elimination of debt service or reduction could be passed along directly, it’s entirely possible that some of the airport’s original mission could be regenerated by other carriers,” he says. “The best way to grow is to cut the price. This is still a free market.”
The airport has also deferred $100 million in projects not critical for safety or maintenance, a decision Cassotis endorses. “When you put every available dollar towards debt service — which is the right thing to do, no question — you put off projects.” By 2019, annual debt service will drop by $45 million, allowing for further investment. “We have security checkpoints that are too small and divided. We have inadequate arrivals for international visitors,” says Cassotis. “Because there is an international market here and we will get international flights, we want to be ready for that.”
Meanwhile, airlines are looking for fast and sustained results in Pittsburgh. While Southern adds Harrisburg and other Pennsylvania routes, Frontier already has announced it will cancel its service to Denver in January; the service was launched at the end of June. Building traffic is a two-steps-forward, one-step back proposition. That doesn’t deter Cassotis. “I’m looking for quick wins, believe me, but I am looking for the long game. And in this work, you have to have a long-term view of what’s possible.”
Christine H. O’Toole is a frequent PM contributor as well as an active travel writer who covers stories about Pittsburgh, the region and the world.