As PIT Picks Up Momentum, Its Top Executive's Pay Gains Altitude, Too

Feb. 21, 2022

Feb. 20—Pittsburgh International isn't close to being one of the biggest airports in the country. But when it comes to paying its CEO, there are few more generous.

At $534,000 this year, Christina Cassotis ranks among the highest paid airport executives nationwide.

She makes far more than the leaders of the five biggest airports in the United States ranked in terms of passengers through those facilities in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 — the same year Pittsburgh International was ranked as the 43rd busiest airport in the country.

There is a catch, however: Four of those big airports are run by governments, which don't typically pay as much as airports run by quasi-independent authorities, such as Pittsburgh International.

To her credit, Ms. Cassotis has been seen by many as giving the airport, which lost its US Airways hub in 2004, some of its mojo back — luring in new airlines, boosting cargo traffic, and spurring development on some of its unused land.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald considers her one of the top hires he's made in his decade at the helm.

Is the airport authority overpaying or is it getting good value for an employee who would be hard to replace? Experts say there's not a clear answer, noting a multitude of factors go into such decisions — including the pandemic-fueled competition for top talent.

Certainly, her pay package has risen significantly since the former aviation consultant started in January 2015 at $295,000.

In an informal survey, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette could find only one airport chief who currently makes more — the CEO of Tampa International, who earned $544,449 last year leading an airport that ranked 23rd in 2019.

The leader of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Reagan National and Dulles International, comes close at $531,239.

Overall, Ms. Cassotis is probably among the top 10 to 15 highest paid airport executives in the U.S., said Steve Van Beek, director and head of North American aviation for Steer, a management consultancy.

Mr. Fitzgerald, who appoints the airport authority board members who determine Ms. Cassotis' salary, said she is worth every penny.

"We've got a superstar out there who, quite frankly, has taken the airport to heights we never anticipated," he said.

Mr. Fitzgerald maintained that Ms. Cassotis, who as CEO of the authority oversees Pittsburgh International and the county airport in West Mifflin, is more than an airport director.

She doubles as an "economic development engine" who has boosted cargo and has been at the forefront of initiatives such as the construction of an airport microgrid and the creation of Neighborhood 91, an additive-manufacturing complex involving 3D printing, Mr. Fitzgerald said.

"What they have done at that airport has been absolutely tremendous," he said.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he has had conversations with business leaders and others who are worried that Ms. Cassotis will leave. He acknowledged she has had other offers, not only from airports but from government.

"We're lucky to get someone of that ability, talent and performance," he said.

Determining pay

To experts, the issue of whether Ms. Cassotis' salary is merited given Pittsburgh International Airport's size is no simple equation.

A multitude of factors can go into determining pay beyond size, including success in attracting airlines and cargo, economic development and innovative leadership.

Quasi-government authorities like the one that oversees Pittsburgh International typically pay their CEOs or executive directors more than strictly government-run operations, Mr. Van Beek said.

Airport authority board members voted last month to increase Ms. Cassotis' pay by 23% to $534,000 and extend her contract two years through 2027.

They also awarded her a performance bonus of $184,500 — equal to 45% of her 2021 pay — for her work last year.


In a statement accompanying the vote, board chairman David Minnotte tied the increase and bonus to a number of achievements, including negotiating a new seven-year lease with the airlines that allowed a $1.4 billion airport modernization to move forward.

He also mentioned many of the same accomplishments as Mr. Fitzgerald, from creation of the microgrid to generate power at the airport through natural gas and solar energy, to the return of the British Airways nonstop flight to London this coming June after it had been suspended in March 2020 because of COVID-19.

Mr. Minnotte last week declined to comment on Ms. Cassotis' salary, referring the Post-Gazette to his statement last month.

Several other board members either declined comment, didn't return phone calls, or referred questions to the airport authority. Authority spokesman Bob Kerlik said Ms. Cassotis would have no comment for this story.

In last month's statement, Mr. Minnotte concluded by saying that her compensation "is in line with what other airports nationally and internationally are paying to secure and keep top talent."

The airport leadership crowd

In reality, the salary tops many of those paid by others in the industry, the Post-Gazette found.

For example, the head of Los Angeles International Airport, the nation's biggest in terms of passengers in 2019, made $384,752 last year, including $6,000 in "other" pay.

The commissioner of the Chicago department of aviation, which oversees both second-ranked O'Hare and 30th-ranked Midway International airports, makes $275,004.

Third-ranked Denver International is paying less than Pittsburgh ($266,143 last year). as is fourth-ranked Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International ($310,000 last year) and fifth-ranked Boston Logan International ($360,000 in 2021).

The director of aviation at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who oversees three of the largest airports in the U.S. — Newark, John F. Kennedy, and LaGuardia — made $326,014 last year.

In looking at similar-size airports to Pittsburgh, the top executives and their pay this year include Cleveland Hopkins ($303,622); Indianapolis ($343,753 last year); Columbus John Glenn ($391,955); and Hartford Bradley ($344,772).

Cross-state peer Philadelphia International, which ranked 16th, pays its airport chief $270,300. The CEO at ninth-ranked Dallas-Fort Worth made $527,000 last year, although a $229,000 bonus brought his total compensation above that of Ms. Cassotis' ($718,500 with bonus).

Specific metrics

Some of the airports, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Denver, Atlanta and Cleveland are government run. Such entities can be restricted in what they can pay airport directors because of salary classification systems or not wanting to exceed what the mayor or other department heads make, Mr. Van Beek said.

Airport authorities, he added, tend to be more business-oriented and use specific metrics to assess performance.

Beyond air services gains, innovations like the airport microgrid could represent the kind of "out of the box leadership approach" that the authority wants to reward, noted Mr. Van Beek, who does no work for Pittsburgh International.

Given all of that, he suggested, her current salary "doesn't seem to be out of the range of what is reasonable given her performance and Ms. Cassotis' background and where she comes from."

Before being hired in Pittsburgh, Ms. Cassotis, who describes herself as a lover of airports, spent 16 years as an aviation consultant. Before that, she worked for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Boston Logan Airport.

Competition for talent is an issue, experts said. Retention of top employees "is the deal right now," said William Swelbar, chief industry analyst at the Swelbar-Zhong consultancy in Virginia. He said that could factor into what the authority board is willing to pay to keep her.

"My guess is she will be on many airport searches. Not only does Christina check the diversity box, she knows the business, has pulled most of the right levers since arriving at PIT, and has built a strong and loyal team that is results oriented," he said.

"If she went on the market, she would certainly be a hot commodity," Mr. Van Beek added.

He pointed out that airport budgets and salaries, including those at Pittsburgh International, typically are funded by rates and charges paid by the airlines and not local tax dollars.

Ms. Cassotis' tenure hasn't been without some controversy. She has paid millions of dollars to some airlines for service that has been suspended or discontinued.

In one case, the authority sought to recover $187,500 of the $800,000 in subsidies it paid to Wow Air after the airline stopped flying to Pittsburgh in 2019. It had started service two years earlier.

Likewise, the authority has been trying to get back $763,000 of the $1 million in incentives given to bankrupt regional business airline OneJet, which ended service in 2018.

The authority paid Condor $500,000 for a seasonal flight to Frankfurt, Germany, that was suspended during the pandemic and has yet to return. It has paid British Airways half of the $3 million in incentives promised for the London flight.

Since starting service last summer backed by $560,000 in subsidies, another airline, Breeze, has cut back on some of its service.

A lot of wins

But Mr. Fitzgerald maintained that the pluses during Ms. Cassotis' tenure have far outweighed any of the hiccups. According to the authority, she has attracted seven new airlines and more than 50 routes, including seasonals, since 2015.

She also has been instrumental in boosting cargo service, landing Amazon Air and international carriers such as Qatar and Cathay Pacific.

Beyond such gains, Mr. Fitzgerald said she has raised the profile of the airport and region nationally, won national airport and airport executive of the year honors, and boosted professionalism.

It's not like in the old days, he said, when the county "hired someone's brother-in-law connected to a row officer or a ward chair" to run the airport.

"We have a lot of confidence in her," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "She continues to get things done in creating jobs and economic growth in this whole region."

Mark Belko: [email protected] or 412-263-1262


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