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Pittsburgh is ready for takeoff

By leveraging a tech-savvy community and local partnerships, the region is redefining what it means to be an airport

Pittsburgh is ready for takeoff
University of Pittsburg Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and PIT CEO Christina Cassotis sign the Neighborhood 91 agreement
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Five years ago, Christina Cassotis stepped in as CEO of Allegheny County Airport Authority, which owns and operates Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT). She didn’t take the role to run an airport. She joined to change an industry and advance the region.

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Pittsburgh is an industrious, tech-savvy, and collaborative place, where companies, nonprofits, universities, and government agencies come together to move the city forward. PIT reflects the city ethos by launching innovative programs that earn Pittsburgh International attention and elevate the traveler experience. These initiatives leverage community partnerships, global alliances, and local resources and reflect an innovative culture that permeates the entire organization.

Innovation validation

Fast Company recognizing PIT on its Most Innovative Companies list validates PIT’s commitment to purpose-driven innovation. Its mission is to not only fulfill its role as an airport, but to also stimulate the economy and contribute to the region in creative ways. For example, PIT is on track to become the first airport in the world to be completely powered by its own microgrid. This power source will protect against outages, securing critical national infrastructure. And since it is fueled by natural gas drilled onsite, it shines a light on Pittsburgh’s energy expertise.

Pittsburgh International Airport earned the standing of #6 in the Travel category on our 2020 Most Innovative Companies List.

With 8,880 acres, PIT is the seventh largest U.S. airport by land mass. Cassotis worked with community leaders to conceive an idea for making better use of its real estate. One result: Neighborhood 91, an all-in-one additive manufacturing (AM) ecosystem cofounded with the University of Pittsburgh. The project connects and condenses natural resources all found within a two-hour drive of the airport. It also brings together partnering institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), an international leader in 3D printing, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Projects like this help the city “attract the type of air service and investment the community deserves,” Cassotis explains.

A company-wide and city-wide culture

Airlines are taking note of Pittsburgh and its travelers. Since 2014, PIT has increased nonstop destinations from 37 to 63. It also “gave the community its airport back” by becoming the first in the U.S. to allow non-ticketed guests to access the terminal so they can accompany passengers to their gates without diminishing safety or security, Cassotis says. The company innovates effectively because every employee understands the greater mission and dares to think differently. The idea for Presley’s Place, an industry-leading sensory room, came from a heavy equipment operator whose son, Presley, has autism. The space makes traveling easier for people with sensory processing sensitivities. Local philanthropic organizations supported the project, and Cassotis hopes it will inspire other airports to design similar rooms.

Partnerships with CMU also led to innovative apps, such as NavCog, an app that makes it easier for visually-impaired people to navigate indoor space, and the TSA Wait Times app, which leverages artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict security checkpoint wait times. Developing it cost a fraction of the price of similar systems, Cassoti says. The apps are yet another example of the team working with local entities to reimagine aviation and make air travel more pleasant for passengers.

“There is a sense here in Pittsburgh that everything is still possible,” Cassotis says, “and that comes from partnerships and a culture of working together.”

About the author

FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.

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