The airline industry is competing in a global market for top quality senior management. It is timely to look at how airlines can best recruit, train, and retain the talent that will lead them to a sustainable future
attract and retain

Recruiting the best talent to manage and lead the airline industry into the future is a challenge on the minds of many in the industry. In the past, airline executives would typically follow a fairly straightforward career path. But it is now rare to see at the helm a 40-year airline veteran who has worked his way up in a single airline. The next generation of executives who will manage airlines will likely not only have been job-hopping, but may also have changed industries.

The problem is more apparent in developed nations where airlines face stiff competition from other highly developed and well-paid sectors. In emerging nations, airlines are often one of the best-known brands, a prestigious employer, and offer the promise of strong growth in a personal and company sense. “While I was at American, we never had trouble hiring a substantial number of very bright people every year into our finance group, and the best were quickly promoted or moved into other departments of the company,” says Bob Crandall, former CEO of American Airlines. “During those years, of course, we had the advantage of growing very rapidly and we earned a reputation for promoting the best and the brightest quickly. Since the business is no longer growing rapidly in many parts of the world, recruiting is now more difficult.”

Intellectually stimulating

But aviation’s difficulties may also be its trump card in securing highly skilled and motivated managers in all regions of the world. The simple fact is that aviation is unlikely to be the most financially lucrative choice of career for the foreseeable future. With wafer-thin profit margins set to continue, the airline industry cannot compete with more robust industries that are able to offer larger remuneration packages. But a stimulating work environment is considered to be as big a draw as a hefty pay packet.

Job security and loyalty to a single company are no longer prime considerations. Few industries would even claim to match the dynamism of the aviation industry and that plays directly into airline hands. “The airline business is an intellectually stimulating environment, presenting complex and interesting management challenges,” says Crandall. “While airlines will never be able to offer their senior officers the excessive rewards offered by some other industries—due to a high level of unionization and modest profitability—I think they can attract good people if their recruiting efforts emphasize the social and economic contribution that airlines make to the economy, the complexity of the management challenges, and the opportunities inherent in improving the public’s perception of airline service.”

The lure of aviation

It is a view shared by many in the industry. There is no work environment more challenging than aviation and that is a powerful hook for attracting ambitious talent.

“Leadership skills are universal,” suggests Oliver Evans, Chief Cargo Officer at Swiss WorldCargo. “They are about getting in touch with deep individual values and sharing them to create common, team inspiration. The airline industry is no different in this. However, we do have a unique aspect, which is that we are in a very deep, meaningful way the vehicle for globalization and collaboration across borders and cultures. This makes us very special and attractive to talented individuals for whom all the exciting developments of our modern world are an inspiration. This is a tremendous chance for us.”

Lise-Marie Turpin, Vice President, Air Canada Cargo, concurs and believes that the ongoing changes within the industry that are making airlines increasingly dynamic is part of the attraction. “Ours is an increasingly volatile industry, and thus extremely challenging—and I think this is the main attraction to many,” she says. “The airline industry requires creative thinkers, risk-takers, and the ability to work under pressure. Courage and tenacity are key characteristics of great airline leaders.”

Getting this message across to those in higher education, and those newly graduating from university is the key to attracting young talent. The industry needs to present an attractive face and should be working with academia to promote the positive aspects of aviation.

Getting the go-getters

Recruiting the best people is one aspect of the future leadership challenge. Retaining them—both at a company level, and within the industry—is another. The brightest executives will, almost by definition, be go-getters and need to feel that they are challenging themselves and moving forward both personally and professionally.

“To maximize opportunities, each company should do all it can to create comprehensive training programs and cross-functional opportunities, which will encourage those who seek a challenging management assignment to believe that they will be presented with continuing opportunities for personal career growth,” says Crandall, highlighting the importance of rapid personal advancement.

According to Turpin, the initial experience of the air transport industry is paramount. “Our experience is that employees who have been with us for a certain number of years tend to stay with the industry,” she says. “Those hired more recently from outside the industry, either enjoy it and tend to stay on or they opt out within the first two years. In other words, the first two years are critical to retaining talent.”

While there has been a significant increase in the number of training programs for technical jobs within the aviation industry, it is only quite recently that a real focus has been put on more management training opportunities for senior airline executives.

At one point, courses specifically aimed at aviation managers were only offered by three institutions: Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, Emery Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, United States, and l’École Nationale de l’Aviation Civile (ENAC) in Toulouse, France.

The situation is changing (see Ways to train panel). For example, IATA partners with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the University of Geneva on aviation-focused management courses. But Turpin believes that still more training opportunities for senior airline managers are required. “Companies should be placing more focus on both internal and external development programs as well as working with academia to ensure appropriate programs are developed and delivered through them,” she says.

Coaching and mentoring should also be added in support of these initiatives,” adds Turpin. “At Air Canada we have developed a program to ‘on-board’ new recruits to minimize the number of new hires leaving the company. We have also identified managers with a potential to grow and will work with them to further develop their careers.”

Understanding cargo

The challenge to recruit and retain top talent is more acute in the air cargo sector. Despite carrying some 35% of world trade by value, air cargo is rarely in the public eye.  “The particular challenge for the air cargo industry is that our work is not widely known or understood by the public at large,” says Turpin. “The best minds are needed to adapt to the ever-changing context and to devise solutions that will meet our customers’ needs into the future.”

Glyn Hughes, IATA’s Director of Cargo Industry Management, agrees that the air cargo industry needs to have a broader appeal. “To appeal to the best and brightest we need to get away from the image of boxes and pallets being loaded on and off aircraft,” he says. “Air cargo is an interesting, exciting—and vital—industry in an increasingly inter-dependent world.” IATA has launched the Future Air Cargo Executive (FACE)  Summit to showcase the important role that young leadership will play in the growth of the air cargo industry. This is the first phase of the FACE program, which aims to raise air cargo airlines’ profile in the airline industry and with future university graduates.

“The importance of the FACE program should not be underestimated,” says Des Vertannes, IATA Global Head of Cargo. “It is vital that air freight brings through a new generation of executives, comfortable with the latest technological advances and air cargo’s logistics evolution.” There is another aspect to the air cargo challenge. While the passenger side of the business can rely on a more universal skillset, air cargo can require some very specific knowledge. “We must never forget that in the cargo world our customers, the forwarders, are logistics professionals who expect us to speak and understand their language,” suggests Swiss WorldCargo’s Evans.

For him, it means that a loyal core of air cargo managers will continue to dominate. “People will stay in our industry because they are inspired,” concludes Evans. “This is a leadership responsibility, and training is only one tool amongst many to create learning opportunities. But the more choices we create for our future managers, the more diversity we offer them, the easier it will be for each individual to find the best solution for her career. This is why I encourage our training specialists to engage with us, share our vision, and develop a constant flow of new courses and content.” 

Ways to train

IATA’s Training and Development Institute (ITDI) has developed several aviation management training programs in partnership with three separate universities—each aimed at a different level of management.

For junior ranks, a one-year Diploma in Advanced Studies in Aviation Management course is now running in partnership with Geneva University. An Advanced Management Program in Air Transport, which is aimed at senior managers who want to progress to the top levels of airline management, was established in conjunction with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore at the end of 2011. An Executive MBA in Aviation Management—again in partnership with NTU is also available. Finally, a partnership with Stanford University offers a distance learning program for junior management.

The six modules—three in general management and three in aviation—can be completed in one year. For developing nations, there is the International Airline Training Fund (IATF). This provides scholarship and training opportunities across several disciplines, including management, to support airline efforts to enhance competitiveness and meet industry challenges.

IATF is a non-profit foundation funded by contributions from IATA members and other organizations involved in the air transport industry. Meanwhile, a joint ICAO‑IATA‑Airports Council International Young Aviation Professionals Program has been launched. This new program will identify young talented professionals who have advanced university qualifications and knowledge of and practical experience in the aviation industry. Due consideration will be given to diversity.

Selected candidates will be expected to contribute to selected work programs, including, aviation safety, aviation security, the economic development of air transport and environmental protection. The program is a year long and focuses on the relationships between regulatory activities and the airline and airport industries.