Airbus exec Zuzana Hrnkova on making aviation dreams real

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Lean Into Aviation (3)Slovakia-born Zuzana Hrnkova first joined the Airbus marketing team in 1994 and has been the head of aircraft interiors marketing for the airframer since 2011. A very busy working mother of two who travels often between Airbus locales in Hamburg and her home base in Toulouse, France, Hrnkova is a hard woman to track down. So, RGN was delighted when Hrnkova agreed to chat with regular contributor Tomás Romero via email and later in person, at this year’s APEX Expo in Anaheim, California for our Lean Into Aviation platform, which highlights the achievements of women in aviation.

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Airbus head of aircraft interiors marketing Zuzana Hrnkova at the APEX Expo in Anaheim, California

Question: Let’s start off with your history. Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, where you grew up?

Answer: My personal aviation story started very early in [my] native Slovakia, when I was a child. My grandfather … was a pilot so I started flying as [a] hobby, and spent a lot of weekends in the flying club. This passion for aircraft led me to study Aeronautical Engineering in Slovakia and then [also] in France.

Question: Along those same lines, a lot of people I’ve talked to in the industry knew from a very early age that they wanted to work in aviation. Was it like that for you? And do you remember what you wanted to be when you were a little girl?

Answer: I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, however, I knew what I [didn’t] want. I didn’t want to be a teacher.

Question: Tell me about your career in aviation? Where did you start out?

Answer: My professional career started in January 1994, when I joined Airbus marketing as a trainee to do my Diploma Thesis from the French School of Civil Aviation in Toulouse. Then in October of 1994 I received a full time contract. This was a big achievement from a young girl [newly] arrived from Eastern Europe.

Question: Definitely! Were there any mentors (male or female) who helped you out along the way?

Answer: During my career I’ve met a lot of fantastic people who supported or inspired me. However I would like to mention some of those who supported me in the important milestones of my professional life: Phillippe Tournaux who offered me a trainee position in 1994 and then Philippe Jarry, who offered me a full time job [at] Airbus.

Question: What’s an average work week like for you? How much time do you spend “in the air” versus at your actual office?

Answer: In my current position, with more leadership and management responsibilities, I’m traveling less than before, however, I’m not spending [much] working time “just in my office”. My working days consist of meetings … with my team in Toulouse or in Hamburg, meetings/workshops with airline customers, in [our] mock-up center, videoconferences, in [our] cabin furnishing center or sometimes with suppliers.

Question: I read somewhere that you have your pilot’s license. Can you talk a little bit about that? Your first solo flight perhaps? Your most memorable flight?

Answer: I did my first solo flight on [a] single engine aircraft in July 1988 in Roudnice nad Labem, a nice aero club close to Prague. I had spent two months flying during summer holiday with my schoolmates [and] the target of this “stay” was to go through basic training, reach 50 flying hours and accomplish a private pilot license at the end of the summer. It was a really great time, we worked very hard but we had all together a lot of fun and went through [some] crazy situations. I have a big smile on my face when I’m remembering it.

My most memorable flights were those I did with my instructor Pepo Kriz – [a] very experienced pilot and also a great professor – when we landed at [the] international airport in Prague and I did all of the exchange[s] with ATC in English, or [my flights] over the Vysoke Tatry mountains. And [my] most stressful [flights] were with my uncle. It is always more difficult to be “teached” by family members. (laughs) But I have to admit that it was also very useful because I learned a lot from him.

Question: Despite the remarkable things women have accomplished in this industry, many people still think of aviation as a traditionally male-dominated industry. What do you think? Is it harder for women to succeed in the world of aviation than men?

Answer: [When] I was a student I realized that the number of girls was very minor, around 15%. When I joined Airbus Marketing in 1994, [the] proportion of women in the division was roughly [the] same. Since then, the proportion of women in our division has more than doubled. And if we look at … my team of 14 people I have [an] equal split of both genders. This balance wasn’t driven by any specific target, it’s the result of [having] the right skills, knowledge and dedication. We can observe [the] same phenomenon in other different companies. So there [are] more and more woman joining the aviation industry.

Question: Have you ever experienced any sexism in the industry?

Answer: Based on my own experience, during my study and working/professional life, I’ve never had any bad experiences. I think it is very important to understand that whoever we are, [you] have a role to play and value to add to this industry. As an employee, I have two “diversity hats”, I’m Slovak and female, and honestly, I believe that my contribution [coming from] a different cultural background and point of view continuously contribute to enriching my working environment.

Question: And finally, what advice would you give to young women looking for a career in aviation? Or even young men for that matter? Why is a career “in the air” still, to paraphrase the old pilot credo, better than anything you can do on the ground?

Answer: Young ladies, young men, [the] aviation industry is offering large opportunities for any kind of profile – from engineers, designers, sales persons, marketers, legal, pilots, communication, for creative or analytical personalities. THE CHOICE IS YOURS! Make your dream reality!

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