What We’re Made Of: Christina Cassotis, Pittsburgh International Airport
What We’re Made Of is a Q&A series that looks at how companies in the aviation industry are tackling challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve had to adapt to changes in where, when and how we work, but we are resilient. If you would like to share your experience, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Full Name: Christina Cassotis
CEO, Pittsburgh International Airport
Date of writing: May 29, 2020
Are you in lockdown right now?
No, we are part of our nation’s critical infrastructure and do not close.
Where are you writing from?
My airport office. When I’m at home, my “office” doubles as a guest room.
How are you trying to maintain “business as usual” or communicating with your team?
In March, we divided our team into three groups: Those that can work off-site full-time, those whose jobs must be done at the airport full-time and those whose departments must represented on-site but can rotate staff. Those in the last grouping were split in half and rotate being in the office every two weeks.
We literally went through years of change management in weeks. Within a week, our technology team put necessary tools in place and provided personalized training for working at home – something that US airports have not really embraced.
Like everyone, we have relied on Skype, Zoom and Webex as part of videoconferencing. Additionally, we enhanced our existing communications by creating more channels for continuous two-way dialogue. Dialogue during crisis is a touchstone, it makes people feel connected and less anxious.
Have you or anyone you know been directly affected by COVID-19?
My uncle, my godfather, who I was really close to, was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and because of COVID restrictions (although he didn’t have COVID-19) our visits had to be through his window and over the phone at the facility where he was being treated. We couldn’t go in and hold his hand. Ultimately, he was able to die at home with hospice but there will be no wake and the funeral will be with family standing in groups of 10 throughout the cemetery. It’s awful.
What news outlets are you following?
In addition to local outlets, I’m following a variety of outlets including the Financial Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Forbes, Fortune and Twitter.
How are you passing time?
When I’m not working, I’m reading a few books to get me thinking about how to reimagine the future – Flash Foresight by Daniel Burrus is one – as well as books to take my mind off of work like Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home. My movies are all about the travel I miss. I just watched Lost in Translation again, and I’m rewatching Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
“We’ve partnered with our region’s vibrant technology community to help incorporate a new disinfecting strategy using ultraviolet light – on robots, a first for US airports.”
Describe where your business was at the end of 2019. What were your goals/projections for 2020?
We had just finished five straight years of passenger growth and the highest passenger count at PIT in more than a decade. We were on track to surpass the 10 million traveler mark in 2020. We added multiple new airlines and nearly doubled our nonstop destinations over five years. Significant support from our airline partners for our Terminal Modernization Program was clear along with a path for financing and construction.
Can you share some specific challenges your business has faced as a result of the outbreak? How did you overcome them and how can the industry learn from your experiences?
As a result of the outbreak, passenger traffic had plummeted more than 95 percent in a matter of weeks. And because revenue is dependent on passenger spending, our anticipated revenue losses are mirroring those figures. To help cushion the impact on our bottom line, we examined our budget to defer any capital projects possible. We also scrubbed our operating budget of any non-timely expenses. And we are looking at innovative ways to grow revenue – such as on-airport development, cargo and natural gas drilling.
Can you give an example of generosity or kindness displayed by your company during this crisis?
We were proud to partner with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank for three large food distribution events in our parking lot. At each event, nearly 1,000 cars were served. Pittsburgh International Airport is an integral part of the community. Our facilities will always be used to help the region – and now, with traffic down and large, quiet spaces available, we are finding new ways to serve.
Additionally, we partnered with the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team to hold two pet food distribution events at our general aviation/executive airport – Allegheny County Airport.
What has your company done to join the efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus?
We’ve always been dedicated to the health, safety and security of passengers and staff. As a result of the pandemic, we’re going even further by committing to the highest in safety standards and practices in the industry.
As the airport prepared for the gradual return of air travel, we launched an airport-wide initiative titled “PIT Safe Travels.” The initiative, in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, boosts health and safety measures already in place throughout the facilities, and will help increase confidence in air travel though enhanced protocols that outline best practices for reducing the spread of germs.
The program includes mandating face coverings while on airport property, practicing social distancing through guided markers in high-traffic areas, utilizing protective shields in high traffic areas, enhancing cleaning and disinfection, and implementing new touchless transaction technology, among others.
How is the pandemic driving innovation?
We’ve partnered with our region’s vibrant technology community to help incorporate a new disinfecting strategy using ultraviolet light – on robots, a first for US airports.
This partnership with Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Robotics is the first step of an airport-wide strategy to deploy technology solutions and multi-layered cleaning processes to enhance the health and safety of the traveling public. The technology is designed to kill microbes in high-traffic areas, increasing cleanliness and helping to restore confidence in traveling.
Where do you see your company or the industry in six months from now? One year?
I feel strongly that there’s up-until-vaccine and then there’s post-vaccine. I think in our industry, and many others, those are the important categories from a timing perspective. I think up-until-vaccine we will see some leveling off of traffic that’s above this 95 percent drop. We’re already seeing a small uptick beginning.
Read more about the coronavirus impact on the air travel industry, including APEX’s position on the matter, and subscribe to the APEX Daily Experience newsletter to stay up to date.