Etihad VP of guest services Linda Celestino talks #PaxEx, leaning in

Lean Into Aviation (3)Linda Celestino was named Etihad’s vice president of guest services in February 2015. In her job, she oversees 6,000 cabin crew at a carrier that strives to provide safe, inspired, consistent and innovative services, both on board and across the airline’s global lounges. But she is also keen to see more women enter leadership roles within the airline, and more broadly in the aviation industry.

Celestino started in aviation as a flight attendant for Ansett Australia and parlayed that into a 32-year career in the industry. Before joining Etihad, she was general manager of inflight services and product at Oman Air. She also previously served as president of the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX). In an interview with Runway Girl Network, Celestino talks about continuing to raise the bar on the passenger experience (#PaxEx) at Etihad, what’s it like to be a woman working in the Middle East, and the importance of bringing up the next generation of women leaders.

How did you get into the aviation industry?

It’s been 32 years in the industry for me this month. It started out as a gap year job where I could travel the world and meet people. But I found my passion in my life.

What made the industry so interesting to you?

In the beginning, it was everything around the service industry that I love. The perceived glamour and the opportunity to travel and work with people was the initial draw card for me. But what I found very quickly is that it becomes part of who you are. The industry is extremely addictive, it’s dynamic, it’s challenging, it’s stressful, it is ever changing and ever evolving.

What has kept me so committed and so passionate over the years is that my role has changed many times. I’ve ventured in different areas of aviation. So I went from cabin crew to a training and development role, then  moved into product development, service design and commercial and marketing.

Aviation has such a broad scope within it that there’s always the opportunity to grow. I know many of us have thought “Well, I’ll try something else or it’s time to grow up and I need to do a real job for a while.” But we’ve all come back to aviation. Once it’s in the blood, it’s very difficult to leave.

What was it in particular about this job that was so appealing to you?

This job is almost too good to be true. I’ve been in the Middle East for a number of years, so roles like this in the region are few and far between. But the opportunity to advocate the role here is really a combination of every role I have ever had.

I’ve loved every different role in different ways and for different reasons. But this leadership role brought together all of my years of experience, and the things that really make my heart beat faster and get me going to work everyday.

The airline has set the bar high on the passenger experience, so how much of a challenge is that for you to not only keep that bar high, but to continue to raise it?

We have really reimagined air travel. And the innovation, the product design and the service delivery that we have put into the market has really been a game changer. Our guest proposition is that we don’t just sell transportation anymore. Our promise is to deliver a remarkable travel experience. The key to delivering that consistently is obviously through our people. It is an incredible challenge, because when you raise the bar high, the challenge is not making a splash, the challenge is how do you sustain it.

What have been your experiences with being a woman working in the Middle East?

I’ve been in the Middle East now for 15 years. Aviation historically has tended to be a male-dominated industry, but that certainly never intimidated me. I’m now seeing more women involved in senior levels of leadership and in roles where we’re really creating change and the blueprint for how we operate.

Being a woman in aviation is one challenge, but to be a woman in aviation in the Middle East has additional challenges, but with additional rewards as well. I’ve never looked at it being a gender-specific opportunity, because I’ve grown up in a family of very strong women.

Unfortunately, the perception of the outside world hasn’t quite caught up with how we actually operate in the Middle East. People are always quite surprised when they come and visit me in Abu Dhabi. They see the way we work and see that there is not only a woman in leadership, but a woman in aviation in the Middle East. So I’m not too sure the external perception matches the internal reality, but it’s certainly something that has never intimidated or created any challenges here for me.

But there is still work to be done. I’m passionate about women in leadership roles. We recently set up a women’s symposium with a group of leaders at different levels here. The aim is to create a space for us and not only support each other and share ideas, but network and create a line of future women leaders. I think that women in aviation have a responsibility to ensure that future leaders feel strong and supported and see that there are opportunities in this industry.

What advice would you give to young women who want to pursue careers in aviation?

As women, you only need the confidence and the determination to succeed. It should be our attitude and what the values we bring to the business, not our gender. I would absolutely encourage women to consider aviation as a career. Aviation is a rich and vibrant industry and women have such value to add. I’m living proof that you can build a rich and vibrant career for 32 years. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to have a family and raise five children during this time.

Developing female talent in the aviation industry is something that I want to spend a lot more time on. It’s about leaving a legacy for the next generation of women, whether they be in operational roles, pilots, senior crew or whether they want to do. We have such value to add and we bring  different perspectives, experiences and competencies to the roles we deliver that creates a much more balanced industry.