If multi-tasking was considered art, eGate Solutions senior director of business development and operations Cenith Wheeler would be an old world master. Having worked in virtually all aspects of onboard services in her 14-plus years in the industry, Wheeler doesn’t just talk the talk but, having launched her career in aviation as a flight attendant for AirTran Airways in 2001, she has literally walked the walk as well.
In fact Wheeler is so well-versed in the behind-the-scenes world of the aircraft cabin that she says she sometimes finds herself helping the cabin crew troubleshoot her competitor’s products on longhaul flights.
And while jetting off to meetings with her teams in Hong Kong, Hawaii, India and the UK, or crossing time zones every day on her commute to eGate headquarters in Chicago from her home in Michigan might sound like a daunting juggling act for some, the hard-charging Wheeler wouldn’t have it any other way.
RGN contributing editor Tomás Romero recently chatted with Wheeler for our Lean Into Aviation platform, which highlights the achievements of women in aviation, promotes equality, and celebrates culture, compassion and diversity across the industry.
Ever since she can remember, Cenith Wheeler wanted to be an attorney. Finishing her business degree at Georgia Southern University in three short years, Wheeler planned to go straight to law school upon graduation, but a fateful “short term gig” as an AirTran flight attendant changed everything.
“The aviation industry is one of those things, you either love it or you absolutely hate it. There’s no in-between,” says Wheeler. “And once I got into it, I absolutely fell in love with it … and I never looked back.”
And though she only worked as a flight attendant for a year-and-a-half before moving into flight attendant training, management and a later role as the manager of onboard services at Spirit Airlines, Wheeler says her experience “on the line” has shaped her perspective ever since. Especially in her current role at eGate Solutions – a gategroup company which provides state-of-the-art passenger service planning and fulfillment solutions for the airline and rail industry.
“I can say this because I was a flight attendant: we’re a special group. We think differently, we act differently, but at the end of the day all of us care about the end result, which is always taking care of the customers,” say Wheeler. “Having been a flight attendant I’ve done the job so, I have a feeling for who the end user is for our products and why it’s important to get the stuff there. It gives [you] some perspective.”
“I watch the [cabin] crew a lot,” she says. “Or I’ll ask questions; they can give you the most valuable information about what works, what doesn’t work, what would help service flow, what would not help service flow. It amazes me every day the amount of work and effort that goes into one flight – you know, what it took to get that can of coke on that aircraft … and there are thousands of flights that take off every single day.”
Another thing that amazes Wheeler these days is the tenacity and work ethic of the younger generation of women (and men!) that are making their way through the industry right now.
“I’m excited to to see the younger generation making decisions that before would take staffs from five different vice presidents to agree to before you were able to do anything,” she says.
“My generation and generations below us are wanting it yesterday, not six weeks from now. So, I’m starting to see some changes, things are starting to move a little bit faster, so people are starting to see the fruits of their labor, which I think is also going to help any gender, not just females. I think that as people are starting to make decisions quicker, they’re starting to see: ‘Oh wow, that was a good decision and Susan made it’ or ‘Molly made that decision.’ So, the females of the world in the airline industry are really getting out there.”
That said, Wheeler admits that the more things change, the more they stay the same, especially in a traditionally male-dominated industry like aviation.
“A lot of the comments, the little things that are said, it’s like the world of actors and actresses. The questions that are asked of female actors are like: ‘Who picked out your hair? Who painted your nails?’ You don’t ask a man those questions. It’s the same concept in the airline world. It’s not meant to be bad … but I know that as a female I’ve had to prove myself numerous times where I feel like it could be different, you know, if I weren’t a woman.”
But here again, Wheeler says the industry is definitely changing its tune. “I think that it just takes a track record, like anything else, and once you’ve proven that, you know, I’m making this decision and it’s a solid decision, then things get easier and people start to have faith in you and trust your decisions.”
Especially if your name is Cenith Wheeler.