From United to Gogo, Mary Rogozinski leans into aviation

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Lean Into Aviation (3)Mary Rogozinski, Gogo’s manager of content partnerships since 2012, has been working in the aviation industry for over 30 years. More than 20 of them have been spent in inflight entertainment (IFE). A self-described AvGeek since she first “caught the travel bug” in college, Rogozinski has helped usher in not just one but two of the game-changing IFE technological advances (the transition to digital and the inflight connectivity revolution) of the past decade. An industry veteran with insider stories enough for at least ten books, Rogozinski remains as witty, down-to-earth, and humble as they come. Simply put, Rogozinski is the real deal.

Recently, RGN’s Tomás Romero was fortunate enough to chat with Rogozinski via telephone from Gogo’s headquarters in Itasca, Illinois for our Lean Into Aviation platform, which highlights the accomplishments of women in aviation.

Mary Rogozinski is not your typical AvGeek. She doesn’t have vivid childhood memories of her first time on an airplane; she comes from a family of Georgetown-educated lawyers and politicians rather than pilots and plane spotters; and except for her college years at Georgetown, Rogozinski has lived her entire life in the town where she was born and raised, Arlington Heights, Illinois.

image (8)“Yeah, I’m sort of an anomaly,” quips Rogozinski. “Most people in the airline industry never live where they grew up … but, I’m very much an Illinois person. Definitely a townie!”

And despite the fact that she grew up a mere ten miles from Chicago O’Hare (which until 2005 was the world’s busiest airport in terms of takeoffs and landings) Rogozinski says that as a little girl what she really wanted to be was a jockey.

“In Arlington, we have a pretty famous racetrack called Arlington Park, so … when visitors came, you took them to the race track,” Rogozinski recalls. Though she was 5’11” by the age of 12, Rogozinski was determined to one day work there. “I was quite taken with horses … and I thought that if I couldn’t be a jockey, I’d be one of those people that lead the horses onto the race track. I wasn’t thinking about money at all [and] aviation was not even on my radar back then.”

But all that changed when Rogozinski met the man she would eventually marry at a high school football game her senior year in high school.

“We started dating and his father was the director of revenue accounting at United Airlines. So, I would say maybe by that spring or definitely that next summer I had a summer temp job at United. Now, it was in accounting, so … you could have been in accounting anywhere. But [United] had very liberal policies on employee travel, so, I got flight benefits,” recalls Rogozinski. “And that’s when the [travel] bug really kicked in, that’s when it definitely started to happen.”

YEARS AT UNITED AIRLINES

After graduating from Georgetown with a BA in Economics, Rogozinski parlayed her newfound love of travel and aviation into a permanent position in United’s Accounts Payable department. “I really didn’t know what I was going to do, but, you know … when you’re young and you’re working with a bunch of people who’ve done the same job for 30 years, [it’s] pretty easy to move around and move up,” remembers Rogozinski. “So, I think within about five years, I had worked my way into the product marketing group … and in 1990, I got hired into a group that was given the task to define what United’s next widebody would be.”

image (11)“[Our] team was specifically looking at product, what would go on the aircraft, and even in 1990 they were already talking about Video on Demand (VOD) and other things that you could do … speakers and fancier seats. But it was all [still] on paper, nothing had been produced yet,” Rogozinski says.

United ended up going with the Boeing 777 and the carrier’s IFE system of choice turned out to the notoriously trouble-plagued GEC-Marconi Inside System (GMIS) in-seat video system. Widely touted beforehand as being the world’s first truly interactive IFE system, GMIS proved to be anything but. “We would describe it to people as: ‘It’s like a local area network on a plane … like at your office. And every seat is the equivalent of a computer’,” Rogozinski recalls. Unfortunately the system never worked like it was supposed to, which left United’s top brass feeling, as Rogozinski remembers, “a little concerned”.

So concerned, in fact, that Rogozinkski was quickly drafted by United’s PR department to travel around the country on the new airliners doing “damage control” for the flawed IFE system. “So, for a year I would fly around, me and some colleagues … and do all of the tours on the planes. It was kind of fun [and] I was doing what I wanted to do, which was work really closely with airplanes,” explains Rogozinski.

Aside from helping her develop a deep affinity for the 777 aircraft, Rogozinski says the experience also prepared her mightily for her later role as United’s manager of onboard systems.

image (10)“As the manager of onboard systems I was responsible on the marketing side, for planning, implementing, and later oversight of any of the technology on aircraft that touched customers and flight attendants,” she says. “So, when United started implementing [new] inflight entertainment systems in the late 90s/early 2000s, that was my baby.” Rogozinski says what she enjoyed most about the position was learning everything she possibly could about the technology behind the next great wave of IFE solutions.

“When [we] were first looking at the VOD and digital systems, you know, moving away from the old High-8 tapes … I wanted to be there to make sure I was asking the right questions and make sure I knew what the right requirements were.” And when it came to researching new technologies, Rogozinski was nothing if not thorough. “Someone once flew in from California just to give me a one-on-one on how DVDs work,” Rogozinski recalls with a laugh.

It was around that time that Rogozinski first got involved with the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), then known as the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA).

APEX/WAEA AFFILIATION

“When I took over the onboard systems job, my colleague at United, Bob Williams, contacted me. He had been on the WAEA board before and knew that they really wanted marketing people to attend more of the Technology Committee meetings,” says Rogozinski. “And because I was a marketing person at an airline [who] also managed technology, Bob thought I was the perfect person to start attending those meetings. So, I did and I actually found great value in them. Because I felt that as an airline you had a bit of a stronger voice and you could influence agendas.”

IMG_5480A firm believer in the value and importance of women expanding their reach into the traditionally male-dominated “STEM fields” (science, technology, engineering and math), Rogozinski quickly moved from being a mere participant at the meetings to taking a leadership role as co-chair of the Technology Committee from 1999 to 2003.

“I was interested in digital content and nobody was talking about digital back then, so, I would kind of push and say: ‘Let’s get some speakers to start explaining what this means’,” she remembers. “I got to meet a lot of great experts who I could then go back to and bounce ideas off of later … maybe even buy their product, but, more than anything they were great resources to help with decision making.”

Rogozinski also served on the WAEA board for a number of years and as the association’s vice president, president and immediate past president, but admits to probably being most proud of her time on the Technology Committee.

“[Sometimes] I’d glaze over when they’d talk about exploding batteries and things like that, and it may have taken me a little bit longer to pick up on a few things because I didn’t have an engineering background, but … I was really proud of the fact that I was a woman from technology and from an airline and that I co-chaired that committee.”

PROJECT KANSAS

Another career milestone Rogozinski admits to being particularly fond of was her involvement in an inflight connectivity project code-named “Kansas”.

Sometime late in 1999 or early 2000, Rogozinski says the CFOs of American, Delta and United agreed to work together to tackle the thorny issue of inflight connectivity. Claiming that the cost of developing a network was so high that the only way to move forward and guarantee the success of whatever the ultimate product would be was by working together, the carriers received permission from the Department of Justice to do just that.

“There was a lot of activity around that time. We had a marketing person, an engineering person, a business model person and a lawyer from each of the three airlines on the team,” says Rogozinski. “And it was one of those horrible weather seasons where there were a lot of storms that went right through the midsection of the US, yet we were flying regularly between Dallas and Chicago, Chicago and Atlanta, and Atlanta to Dallas. So, we were always getting caught in these horrible delays … and one time we decided that maybe we didn’t want to meet at one of our places. Someone said: ‘Lets fly to Kansas City!’ We never actually did, but it became a running joke.” And thus was born project Kansas.

The group later added Boeing to the mix to help with implementation on the technology side. “And what we worked on eventually became Connexion by Boeing, which was probably the first Wi-Fi or connectivity system to fly,” says Rogozinski. On 6 June 2001, the three airlines announced their partnership, Boeing’s involvement, and their overall plans at a splashy press conference at the Press Club in Washington DC.

The next few months were a flurry of activity as the Kansas team expanded and got busy making Connexion by Boeing a reality. And then, on a warm day in September, everything changed.

“When 9/11 hit, literally and figuratively, all three of [the airlines] backed out of the project,” recalls Rogozinski. “By about October 1st all three of [us] realized [we] could no longer proceed. Lufthansa became the international launch customer for Connexion by Boeing in May of 2004.”

Career-wise, 9/11 had a huge impact on Rogozinski as well. “A big part of my job was strategy and planning and … looking forward,” she says. “And following 9/11 I think there was just a mood and a need to maintain and try not to lose too much. So, I gradually moved out of inflight entertainment.”

After a brief stint as the product manager of United’s Airport Lounge division, Rogozinski left the carrier during a massive layoff in 2008. She joined the team at Gogo in 2009.

ON THE GO AT GOGO

“When I started with Gogo I was hired into the [Airline] Account Management group … and I think part of the reason they brought me in was because they were already then thinking about Gogo Vision [the company’s streaming video product which Rogozonski helped launch on American Airlines in 2011]. And given the background I had with inflight entertainment, I think they thought that … I could at least bring some of my expertise” to the table, says Rogozinski.

IMG_7354But after more than 20 years in the industry, expertise was not all that Rogozinski had to offer this time around. Rogozinski also came armed with a digital Rolodex to kill for.

“One day, when I came in, they were like: ‘We don’t know anybody at Paramount, does anybody know anyone at Paramount?’ And I said: ‘Yeah, Joan Filippini.’ So, that’s when I began to use some of my background and resources to help connect to those guys.” And when her boss at the time suggested that Rogozinski manage relationships with the studios for Gogo full time, she said she practically leapt at the offer.

“It was kind of getting back to my roots. Building and maintaining relationships. So, it worked out nicely,” Rogoinski says.

A self-described “true believer” in the value and importance of face-to-face meetings, Rogozinski says that working closely with others is probably the best part of her job today. “I think we get wrapped up in things at home and that sometimes makes it hard to travel, but … it’s important to get out there and meet with people,” explains Rogozinski, who adds that it’s hard to have real and lasting “Aha! moments” together on a conference call.

In fact, Rogozinski said she had one of those Aha! moments recently when she was approached by some female colleagues at work about starting a Gogo women’s networking group. Having started something similar with some of her close female friends at United a few years back, Rogizinski said she sparked to the idea immediately.

“I’m just helping with it … but, we’ve had two or three different meetings so far where we’ve invited senior women leaders from the company to basically just kind of share their experiences,” Rogozinski says. The first few meetings have covered everything from navigating the corporate ladder in a male-dominated industry to the evergreen topic of work/life balance. And, perhaps best of all, Gogo has thrown some financial support behind the meetings as well. “At a recent turnout, I think maybe 80% of the women at the company attended the meeting,” says Rogozinski. “So, it was really good.”

And when asked what advice she might offer to women (or men for that matter) just starting out in the industry, Rogozinski didn’t skip a beat.

THE VALUE OF SELF PROMOTION

“I think in terms of women in this industry I think you’re definitely sometimes scrutinized a little bit more,” says Rogozinksi. “But, I have found that when you make a commitment and keep that commitment … [and] when you’re known as someone who can get the job done and have the results to show for it, I think that speaks tremendously within any organization. Especially some of these more male-oriented companies.”

“And another thing I’ve learned … is that it can’t hurt to self-promote. You can’t wait for people to figure out that you did a great job.” That said, Rogozinski admits that there is a fine line between saying: ‘Hey, did you see what I did?’ and coming across as looking arrogant or too self-promoting. “I think that’s a tough one to balance, and … again, it’s a fine line,” says Rogozinski. “You know the old story, a man who’s a tough boss is a tough boss, and a woman who’s a tough boss is thought of as a bitch. Women have that sort of stereotype that they have to work through.”

But Rogizinski says that the strong, powerful women she’s seen succeed in the aviation industry are those who “keep pursuing that deadline, that goal, and then make sure people know [they] did it”. In other words, don’t be afraid to make some noise, leave your mark and above all else, says Rogozinski: “Make sure people know what you did.”

And in Mary Rogozinksi’s case, that’s an awful lot.

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