Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis moderates a panel at an airport conference in Orlando on April 15. (Photo by Paul Hoback)

PIT CEO: For Business Travelers, Everything Old is New Again

In my pre-COVID life, I would have gladly entered any road warrior competition on the speed and efficiency of business travel—and expected to win.

After all, I’m not just any seasoned traveler. I run an airport. Air travel is in my DNA.

Or at least I thought so. But after flying to my first in-person conference in more than a year, I think the pandemic has addled my brain.

Everything felt new on this trip. Like I was reconnecting with a really old friend from childhood at a favorite spot we hung out at as kids, only I couldn’t remember what we used to do. It all started with the packing.

Like many experienced travelers, I have a “go bag” of toiletries I only use on the road. I have the right clothing for business trips—skirts and blouses and jackets that would not wrinkle much if rolled up tight in my suitcase.

I had a routine, and I traveled light. I prided myself on being able to get ready for any trip anywhere in the world in 15 minutes or less.

I forgot it all.

PIT CEO Christina Cassotis (center) moderated a panel with Bob Fornaro (left), former CEO of Spirit Airlines, and Bill Hayden, chief strategy officer and senior vice president of global brand management for Universal Parks and Resorts, at Airports Council International – North America’s CEO Forum in Orlando. (Photo by Paul Hoback)

Three days before I was to leave for a conference of airport CEOs in Orlando, I looked in my closet and realized I had no idea what to bring.

Worse yet, I had no idea what to wear. A suit seemed silly, and dresses felt a bit too much. But I knew I had to step it up beyond the casual clothes I’ve been wearing on all those video calls. Especially those unattractive elastic waist pants. Let’s be honest: in the virtual world, we’ve all lived our lives waist up.

I packed way too much stuff. And then I threw in an extra jacket and T-shirt just in case. And don’t even get me started on my toiletries. Somehow, I ended up with bags of extra, just-in-case stuff I never used to pack. An extra brush? Three lipsticks? Tylenol, Tums, Band-aids? And more makeup than I’ve worn in a year.

I know this isn’t crazy stuff to pack. It’s just crazy for me. I’ve always operated on the theory that what I didn’t bring, I could buy on the road.

I left for the airport two hours early. Not my thing in the pre-COVID world—I am usually the one cutting it close on boarding. It’s a little game I used to play. In my whole career, I have only missed one flight. But I was not taking any chances this time.

And then—I almost can’t believe I’m sharing this—I checked my bag. I do not check my bag for business trips. Ever. I never wanted to land anywhere in the world and wait at baggage claim.

With my travel companions, this was a rule I refused to negotiate. No checked bags. One colleague lobbied me hard for days before a trip, until I finally figured out he didn’t know how to iron his shirts.

I told him he could hang his shirt at the back of the shower and let the steam take the wrinkles out. He carried on his luggage.

When I arrived at the conference, it turned out that my fellow airport CEOs all had similar tales of their wobbly travel preparations. Everyone had forgotten something; a shaving kit or hair products used every day. Me? I forgot pajamas. Fortunately, I had packed so many t-shirts that I was able to make it work.

Travel is an amazing gift. It opens you up to new adventures and new people and new understandings. I have been traveling for business for more than 25 years. It’s why I chose a career consulting with airports—you have to travel to get to them.

Now, as an airport CEO, I travel as part of our mission to bring in more airlines and routes and to attract investment in our region through air service, both passenger and cargo.

I have been blessed with many wonderful experiences through travel, meeting people who have become lifelong friends beyond business. But we all know travel also can be exhausting and anything but glamorous. People bumping into you with their huge backpacks, turbulent flights and long weather delays—these are all part of the road warrior experience.

But part of me is embracing those inconveniences, too. Because, well, they feel normal.

We will all fly again. Leisure bookings are leading the way, but business travel is starting to pick up. And whether you’re a first-timer or a road warrior, you’ll discover spotless airports and expertly cleaned planes, as well as health and safety requirements that are now as common as going through security.

So I’m giving myself a break, and you should, too. It has been a brutal year. We’ve all lost so much during this pandemic: people we love, ways of life, time with family and experiences with friends.

There’s a new world to navigate and we all have a lot to re-learn. Including how to pack.

Christina Cassotis is CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport.

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