Shifted Perception

posted on 12th December 2022
Shifted Perception

Just a few years ago, women were very much the exception in the aviation industry. Although it remains male dominated, business aviation is attracting more women than ever before, and they showcase the diversity of opportunities it offers. EVA spoke with four women working in diverse roles across four very different organisations

Claudia Arnold
Senior Director of Marketing, AEGFUELS

What was your route into marketing?
I’ve always been passionate about telling a story through branding and visual design. Ever since I was young, I’ve had my creativity inspired by designing logos and creating brand elements. That passion turned into my career because marketing allows me to tell those stories and connect with audiences through my work every day.

What brought you to the aviation industry?
I started working at Fontainebleau Aviation’s customer service desk in college. After just the first couple months in aviation, I completely fell in love with it. I remember learning the phonetic alphabet and feeling so proud the first time a pilot called through ARINC and I could successfully communicate with them during approach.
I was eventually elevated to Marketing Manager and started travelling around the US promoting the FBO’s brand. Along the way I developed strong relationships with industry mentors who took me under their wings and taught me the ropes. After a few years of fun and learning from my peers, I knew aviation was where I wanted to stay.

And what brought you to aviation fuel?
After I completed my graduate degree, I started looking for jobs in the industry that would give me a platform to create, from scratch, a truly global brand and visual corporate identity.
AEG Fuels had a brand that was just beginning to attract notice and operated with a dynamic, fast, start-up mentality. I’ve had the opportunity to be right at the centre of our brand’s development as we created our corporate identity. Now I represent the brand all over the world at tradeshows, conferences and industry events as we work to serve customers on a global scale with a local touch.

Every aircraft needs fuel and every fuel company sells the same product. What makes AEGFUELS special?
We pride ourselves on being a ‘solutions’ centred organisation and customers rely on our services not just for fuel, but for a suite of offerings targeting every need a flight department could have.
Tax exemptions, on-demand fuel cards, rewards programmes, an international trip planning offering powered by Jeppesen, 24/7 dispatch, an AEG Connect Network of preferred FBOs, and green initiatives that include both carbon offsets and SAF programmes, are all among the solutions AEG offers, in one ready package.
Ultimately though, the relationships we create with our customers have been the key to our success. This is what has made AEG special.

What aspect of the job is most fulfilling?
Seeing our team and business grow gives me great satisfaction. Also hearing customer, partner and vendor feedback after a tradeshow is rewarding.
We know the amount of work that goes into a three-day show that literally flies by and when people notice the little details you spent months organising, that’s when you know the job was well done.
I also find passing my knowledge down to the younger generation of aviation professionals to be so gratifying. I am a member of the NBAA’s YoPro Council, and we continuously work on advocating for the industry and coaching newcomers.

What do your friends and family think of what you do for a living?
My family and old friends are proud and have supported me every step of the way. New friends need a 30-minute explanation of what I do, because they have so many questions!

If you weren’t a fuel marketer, what would you do?
I would still work in the industry, perhaps in customer experience or product/service development.

What do you want to accomplish next?
I want to create a Florida chapter of Women in Aviation International, with a couple of industry professionals that also live in the state, and do community outreach to promote the industry to younger generations.

Have you encountered/do you encounter gender-based bias? Has that changed since you entered the industry?
While I personally have not encountered gender-based bias, I do recognise that it’s a problem for all of us in the industry to solve together. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been mentored by both male and female professionals in senior roles and all have treated me with the highest level of respect, dignity and professionalism. More than anything, I’m happiest to see more women overall entering aviation recently and to be a part of that shift.

Katie Bancroft
Associate, Jaffa & Co

The journey to becoming a lawyer is long. What was your experience?
My route was longer than most because I worked full-time and studied after work and at weekends for the entire duration of my legal studies. It took me about ten years in total and it was a difficult balancing act at times. I wouldn’t change it though, because the determination and discipline it gave me is invaluable. There’s a lot to be said for the confidence and self-belief you gain from taking on, and completing, a massive undertaking.

You specialise in business jets. How did you find this legal niche?
My first firm was based in the busy, commercial maritime hub of Southampton, so it had a marine department. It dealt with everything from refrigerated cargo vessels to superyachts. I really enjoyed the quirks and foibles of that area of law but found the commercial side of marine work hard to get excited about. As my career progressed, I decided to focus on superyachts.
The legal principles underpinning the sale and purchase of superyachts and business jets are fundamentally the same and a client who has a yacht may well also have a jet (and a helicopter), so moving into business aviation was a natural progression.
A combination of the more corporate and organised way the business aviation industry works, the legal nuances of bizav transactions and my irrepressible fascination with the aircraft themselves made everything fall into place. I set about studying business aviation transactions and completed the Irish Law Society’s Diploma in Aviation Leasing and Finance. I’d finally found my thing!

What makes Jaffa & Co special?
Our clients tell us we are nice people to work with and we understand that they want to get deals done. We are responsive, we make our clients feel that we are working together as a team and we’re unruffled in high-pressure situations.
I’ve been told more than a few times that I’m a breath of fresh air in the industry and that pleases me. When Jaffa & Co was a very young company (I was its first employee), we were told we were ‘industry disrupters’. I quite liked that label too.
What aspect of the job is most fulfilling? Any challenges?
My favourite type of transaction involves what we call a ‘green’ buyer, someone who has not owned an aircraft before. They are starting from zero and it is really rewarding to guide them through the process, using my network to put them in touch with all the people necessary to buy an aircraft. Then the deal progresses through to delivery and all the parts of the puzzle – the ownership structure, aircraft management, tax arrangements, delivery documentation, finance – fit into place. Then, eventually, the aircraft comes to Farnborough and I’m proud to see it on the ramp.
The challenges usually involve managing many different parties and their expectations. It is not uncommon for the reality of what is happening on the ground to drift out of sync with what the parties have agreed contractually to do. There are also certain tasks or steps in a transaction that are steadfastly immovable and impervious to any external timelines or transactional pressures. We want to find a way to make things work and when there is absolutely no way of making a process quicker or meeting a client’s deadline, it can be frustrating.
What do your friends and family think of what you do for a living?
Most of my family have just accepted that I’m a jet geek! I really love when I can show them what I do up close. I remember the first time I completed an aircraft sale. I texted my mum: “I just delivered an aircraft!” and she replied: “How did you do that?”
Everything becomes more tangible when I bring them to Farnborough to see a private airport and the aircraft up close – one of my absolute favourite moments was taking my mum on a flight on a Global 6000 – that’s when family members really start to understand why I talk about pre-purchase inspections, corrosion on leading edges and dark wood in a cabin.
My family are really understanding about me occasionally zoning out because an important email has come in or having to take calls at strange times (deals with the US West Coast can be fun).

If you weren’t an aviation lawyer, what would you do?
I always wanted to be an archaeologist when I was little. Now, I think I would have liked to have been a pilot… business aviation, naturally.

What do you want to accomplish next?
I’m really keen to promote the work we do and I’ve been speaking with Farnborough Airport about their career days. I’m a big believer in ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. When I was a girl, I didn’t even realise women could be pilots. I never saw a female pilot and I never entertained the thought that I could do that. I want to tell the next generation that this is something they can do. There are so many different roles in business aviation. We’re a fascinating, fast-paced and inspiring industry. I want people to see that.
I also want to become a partner at Jaffa & Co – only 25% of all partners in law firms in England and Wales are women, yet more women are entering the profession than men. And I have a steadily growing curiosity about qualifying as a lawyer in the US. Something like 73% of business jets are there and I love the idea of getting involved in that.
One day I will start flying lessons too!

Have you encountered/do you encounter gender-based bias? Has that changed since you entered the industry?
Yes, I’ve encountered gender bias. People working on deals have assumed my more junior male colleague was taking the lead. I’ve had people question how much I know and ‘mansplain’. Silly or inappropriate things have also been said to me that wouldn’t have been said to a man.
But I have excellent support from my colleagues, including James Jaffa, the firm’s founder, and I if someone doubts me, I just let the deal speak for itself.

Natalie Rodríguez
VVIP Aircraft Interior Designer, Natalie Rodríguez Luxury Design

What brought you into VVIP aircraft cabin design?
I grew up heavily involved in the visual and performing arts, and I knew from a very young age that I wanted to do something creative with my life. I was a competitive dancer, my mother often enrolled me in art programmes for sketching and painting, and we went to museums often. Chatting with my friend in high school, I expressed an interest in interior design as a career. She told me her aunt was an interior designer, but for aircraft, which is when I knew aviation was where I wanted to be. I was 16 years old.
I ended up graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Interior Environmental Design from the University of the Incarnate Word, and during that time I completed my design internship with Gore Design Completions (GDC Technics), working for them as a staff designer while I finished my degree. Most colleagues at the completion centres I’ve worked in were industrial designers, so starting out I took extra engineering classes, worked to learn the software they used and adapted some of their ways of thinking to keep up with them.

How does one train to become a VVIP cabin designer? Are you as comfortable with yachts and residences?
In our corner of aviation everyone has a different story about how they’ve gained their knowledge. Speaking from personal experience, I believe it’s good to complete a design internship or staff design position to start, with either an aircraft completion centre or OEM, as it’s a good preview of what to expect for a long-term career.
Most of my interior design experience is in aviation, and this tends to dominate customer design service requests, although residential design has played a role in my personal career development. Yachts are fresh territory for me – it’s a sector I’m exploring more based on recent enquiries.

You previously worked with AERIA, Citadel and others. What made you go solo?
Going solo was not an aspiration of mine, and I would have been perfectly happy staying with one company for as long as possible. Things started shifting after the pandemic in 2020. Two years later I decided to take a leap of faith, and it is the scariest, most rewarding thing that I’ve done in my career thus far. Scary because of the uncertainties that come with running one’s own practice, rewarding because there is something so special about engraving each experience with your name, brand and personal energy, whether it’s a design package, presentation, business card or phone call.

How do designers and engineers work together?
In aviation, there is constant collaboration between design and engineering, and it’s imperative that good communication and mutual respect is established. It is good for a designer to think ahead and anticipate what engineering might say about a certain design element and have a couple of solutions for how design might make the item work. It’s also good for engineering to anticipate pushing the envelope when design suggests things that may seem out of the ordinary. Many times I’ll communicate an idea concurrent with engineering, and I’ll talk the customer request through with them and receive their input on what might be the best ways for us to go about achieving the goal.

How can you be expert in all aspects of cabin design and exterior paint schemes?
There are so many elements that go into bringing a design to life, but everything is interconnected in some way. For instance, space planning addresses the science of how the passenger will move through the space and how well the space will work, and architectural features and styling requests often affect the space planning.
The interior styling, interior functionality and aircraft mission affect the materials selected. Sometimes there are very specific requests for lighting, and these must also be considered when selecting materials. The overall design can influence how the finishing touches are treated, including crockery, pillows, bedding and other amenities. Customers tend to be very specific about the customisation of these items too, and it tends to be a similar case with exterior paint.

What aspect of the job is most fulfilling? Any challenges?
The conceptual development phase is fun because it’s a period of discovery and creativity, while refining to get to the final design is exciting because it’s like carving the final details of a sculpture. When the design goes to build, seeing everything come to life and following the programme from start to finish is always rewarding and surreal, knowing some ideas that were originally sketched on paper are now being built, going through testing, and getting ready to fly.
Challenges come in many forms, from supply chain, to changes in the design post approval, or anything that comes up on the engineering or production side. I plan ahead as much as possible to avoid delays and work closely with team members to ensure everything stays the course. The most satisfying part is the customer’s excitement when their final design is delivered. I just feel so blessed and thankful to be able to do what I love every day.

What do your friends and family think of what you do for a living?
My friends and family are proud and tend to think it’s a very cool, unusual and specific job. I get lots of questions on what my day-to-day looks like, as well as what’s the craziest thing someone has asked for, etc, but there’s a lot I can’t disclose and that’s treated with respect within my circles.

If you didn’t design VVIP cabins, what would you do?
I’ve found superyacht interiors interesting from the similarities with aircraft, and I also enjoy the thoughtfulness that goes into luxury automotive. If not design, then I’m certain my job would have something to do with dance or international travel.

What do you want to accomplish next?
I’m very much looking forward to growing my design practice, continuing my speciality in VVIP Boeing and Airbus aircraft completions and refurbishment, and providing design support for a variety of other business jets as well.
Have you encountered/do you encounter gender-based bias? Has that changed since you entered the industry?
I have yet to encounter true gender-based bias and I think it’s a wonderful time to be a woman in the workplace – especially in the aviation industry. Gender differences are something I’m mindful of when working with customers in other parts of the world who might have a different outlook, although I’ve seen a positive shift over the years. I mostly do my research to ensure that respectful gestures and cultural manners are put into practice, as well as researching the roles that women play in the given country.

Rebekah Hill
Wellbeing & Sustainability Manager, SaxonAir

You hadn’t planned for an aviation career. What’s the story?
I started at SaxonAir as an admin assistant, thinking I’d find something fairly easy to do alongside my Open University psychology degree. Once I’d got a taste for aviation, and specifically SaxonAir, I realised this was an amazing industry to be in. I was promoted to Executive Assistant and then Admin Manager of a small team, and after being involved in several projects with Alex Durand, our CEO, I did a short course on sustainability and climate change. My role was then created around the work I was already doing.

You’re Wellbeing & Sustainability Manager. Is there a pioneering element to the job?
I would say so. The wellbeing side is something I’ve always had a passion for, which is why I studied psychology alongside work, and here it’s about considering people as individuals and not just employees, something that many businesses miss. Alex and SaxonAir’s owners have always been very much interested in and passionate about their people, and that has allowed me to be creative and unrestricted in the role. It’s the same with the sustainability element, which is now a company value. It started as an interest and quickly became a focus and a role of its own, with the full support of both the owners and directors.

What does your day-to-day look like?
The job is as much about engaging internally with employees and departments as it is sharing what we are working on externally with our clients and partners. It’s important for us all to really understand and buy into the work we are doing on sustainability. There is a responsibility right down to the individual level in considering how we can each carry out sustainable practices, from our commute in to work, through the waste we produce from food and plastics, right up to the emissions associated with the aircraft we fly. We’ve run workshops to fully embed our strategy and now have a department carbon budgets programme in place where everyone has individual accountability on our sustainability journey.
Overall, it’s quite a creative role, mapping company emissions and researching and implementing the best methods to reduce them. There is a lot of collaboration involved and education pieces, including a yearly event involving local businesses with the same values as us.

What makes working at SaxonAir special?
There really is a sense of your career being almost limitless. The encouragement and trust of the directors and business stakeholders provides the freedom and ability for individuals to learn where their strengths lie and work to their best ability. We all have the freedom to work in a role suited to us, train and be involved in a host of projects. We’ve also adopted flexible working, which means we aren’t restricted by specific work locations or set hours. It all comes down to the people: they’re what makes SaxonAir so special.

What aspect of the job is most fulfilling? Any challenges?
The most satisfying and fun parts of my job are when we push the boundaries and do something out of the ordinary – like installing beehives at the Business Aviation Centre. It was unexpected, informs research into the bee population and bee behaviour, and contributes positively to the environment.
It’s also very satisfying securing new collaborations and partnerships, such as that with NeboAir, which operates the world’s first certified electric aircraft. NUNCATS (which aims to provide a dependable lifeline for the world’s remote communities, offer hands-on experience and STEM learning opportunities, and enable sports flyers to convert to cleaner, greener energy) and Explorers Against Extinction are other partners with which we share values and work towards the same goals.
The challenges are mostly with changing the narrative around private aviation. The media angle in particular is mostly negative – aviation is a high-emissions industry and people believe private aviation is unnecessarily bad for the environment, but it’s about the bigger picture. The aviation industry is positive in many ways and there are lots of great things happening in terms of developing the industry to become greener and the positive contribution to economies as a result of travel.

What do your friends and family think of what you do for a living?
They think it’s great! They’re surprised at how much freedom and opportunity I have. From the job title it’s not immediately obvious what I do, and I love seeing puzzled faces when people ask. It’s certainly unique and I would never have predicted this is where I would be when I started working at SaxonAir.

If you weren’t in your role, what would you do?
I’d probably be doing something psychology focussed. I have always been interested in people, in mental health and especially in criminal psychology.

What do you want to accomplish next?
I want to keep pushing industry boundaries and challenging the norms. We have plans to get involved in some really interesting projects in 2023, including one to facilitate the infrastructure for electric flight. We will keep investing in the future of aviation and doing what we can for the local environment.

Have you encountered/do you encounter gender-based bias? Has that changed since you entered the industry?
The industry is male dominated. When I first arrived, there seemed to be very gender-stereotypical roles and perhaps also an age bias. However, both SaxonAir and the industry have changed in the five years since I joined and it seems a new generation is pushing forward with a very different way of thinking.
This is another area where SaxonAir is passionate – we are working with local schools to promote the diversity of roles within aviation at careers events and developing a ‘pathways’ programme internally that will also focus on diversity and inclusivity within the industry, because the next generation is aviation’s future.