Flight school

Christina Cassotis, EMBA ’14, returns to school to enhance commitment to aviation industry

January 29, 2014

Christina Cassotis, EMBA ’14

Christina Cassotis, EMBA ’14

After 20 years in the aviation industry and thousands of flying hours, Christina Anne Cassotis, EMBA ’14, has not lost her zeal for travel. It is a passion “totally tied to my father, a pilot for Pan Am during the ‘sky god’ days,” she said. “I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

Cassotis today serves as a vice president and leader of airport services practice for ICF SH&E, a global technology, policy, and management consulting firm. Propelled by a commitment to aviation, she is at MIT Sloan for an Executive MBA (EMBA) which she hopes will help equip her to lead and transform the industry. The MIT Executive MBA program is a 20-month, executive schedule MBA program for mid-career leaders, averaging 16 years of work experience. The EMBAs are learning because they’re working: even as they continue and accelerate their careers, they come to MIT Sloan for 26 weekends and four integrated one-week modules.

“A couple years ago, I began thinking that I had to move; that it was time to take it to the next level of leadership,” said Cassotis. Concerned that she had been “so deep in aviation for so long” that her creative spark might dim, Cassotis seized on the EMBA program. “When I found out about it, I didn’t consider anything else. My feeling was, how do you not go to one of the best schools in the world when they’ve created a program for working professionals?”

As a top manager at ICF SH&E, Cassotis juggles a portfolio that includes advising chiefs of major U.S. airports on economic strategy, working with state departments of transportation on airport system planning, developing marketing schemes for airports worldwide, conducting route profitability studies for air carriers, and increasingly, expanding her firm’s global reach.

A resident of York, Maine, she jets thousands of miles a week, helping airports enhance revenue streams and attract new airline carriers. It makes for “a constant struggle with family,” Cassotis admitted. “I try to get home for dinner two nights a week. It doesn’t always happen,” she said.

But when Cassotis does walk through her front door, she is fully engaged with her husband and 11-year-old son. “I can’t come home with an attitude that I’ve just flown for 19 hours. It doesn’t matter,” she said. So it’s off to basketball practice, social activities, and yes, even the airport as her son, Timothy, took his first flying lesson at age 4, and pursues the interest avidly. Cassotis, who has no desire to pilot a plane, said, “My son is channeling my father in interesting ways.” She makes time for family vacations, which invariably involve what they love to do most—travel to distant places such as China and Egypt.

A year into the program, Cassotis believes that the EMBA experience is precisely what she needs to address complex challenges at her firm, while advancing her career. “I want a much broader, deeper foundation on which to base my corporate, multinational work. This is about deliberately filling in gaps in my skillset I think are critical to getting to the next level of leadership.”

Among these challenges: the daunting but exciting prospect of expanding ICF SH&E interests in China, where 100 airports are likely to spring up in a relatively short amount of time. While China presents a great potential opportunity, Cassotis said she is learning that her company must tread slowly as it explores this enormous new market.

Some of her EMBA classes address just this kind of challenge. “The week-long course Leading in a Global Context was phenomenal, all about how macroeconomics and monetary and fiscal policies impact corporations,” she said. “And the marketing class was very practical, offering a strategic framework in which to understand execution opportunities.” Cassotis has also been absorbing lessons from her classmates, whether they are entrepreneurs sharing ideas on structuring partnership deals or professionals from other industries describing their mistakes and successes while expanding into new international markets.

“Aviation is constantly changing, and to operate and succeed in this environment you have to have an enormous amount of flexibility and curiosity,” Cassotis said. The MIT Executive MBA program, she said, “is helping me think about the world and manage across different countries, cultures and parts of the industry.”