This is not the whole story, but we don’t have time. I’ll tell you the full tale over a beer when we next meet at an aviation event. We’ll have a good laugh. The short and sweet is that I never planned to live my life in an aircraft cabin at 35,000 feet, traveling from hanger to hanger, workshop to workshop, around the world as an interiors executive. I have always intended to be a writer, ever since I was a small child telling tall tales to entertain my friends. But things took a funny turn when a petty lawsuit led to a life-changing career.
In the early nineties, I worked as a branch manager at a personnel agency. One of my clients – a company that manufactured aircraft interiors and cabin life saving equipment – had failed to pay its bill. Our firm was very strict about collections, so the legal team sued for payment. The chief investor of the company in default, which was working on a turnaround, called me to figure out what was going on. I told him that we weren’t in the habit of working for free and that unless he wanted me to recruit the staff back away from him, then they should just pay their bills. I thought he was gruff. He thought I was funny. By the end of the call, he had me laughing. I had a promise of immediate payment, which he fulfilled, and a job offer, which I declined.
A few months later, though, I was ready for a change and I took him up on the opportunity. I had no fixed title or job description and I had to take a pay cut. I knew nothing about planes, and had only flown a few times, but I would learn something new and had unlimited potential for advancement.
My first assignment was in the HR department digitizing the manual system to calculate piece-work for the cut and sew part of the business. It was a great opportunity to work with the people on the shop floor and learn from them. They were the ones who saw the real ins and outs and knew all the little tricks missed in the design process. I was fortunate to come from a family of seamstresses, so I could speak the lingo. I moved on to working with the cutting team too, learned the art of handling leather and then to the life rafts and life jackets production lines. I learned about the origami art of packing inflatables so that they fit in small spaces and always deploy in the right direction. Then I moved to maintenance and our repair station where I learned that mishandling pressure valves and cylinders can literally kill you.
When I refined the system of piece-work I also relayed recommendations from the shop workers in the various departments on how their jobs might be improved. My boss, who was not based at the factory, asked me to get to know what was going on in the other departments by taking minutes of meetings. It was difficult work because people didn’t really want me there. They kept speaking in code – using all the common acronyms of the industry which were clear to them and cyphers to me. I remember being embarrassed during a meeting when I asked them to explain what AAL was for the purpose of my notes. Everyone stopped and stared at the fool who didn’t know the three-letter ICAO code for American Airlines, one of our top customers. I don’t mind sounding ignorant but I do mind staying ignorant. I made it my business to review every manual, every regulatory book, every piece of documentation that I could find that would help me convert all the acronyms into plain English. My minutes became a guide for others to better understand how things worked at the company.
This led to my being assigned to help the quality control team with a big project to update the policies and procedures manuals for new regulatory and customer standards. I learned that QC people are also great teachers. Ours were happy to explain the inner workings of all the tests that they conducted and the various processes for production, parts control, and regulatory compliance.
At this time, the company was also making preparations for Y2K and we needed to install a new manufacturing resource planning (MRP) system. I had a background in computers, and had learned programming, so I was asked to lead the implementation team. This helped me learn even more about the processes of production and also the intricacies of engineering, work orders, time studies, and the research and development process. It was a lot of work, a lot of late hours, but we got it done as a team. If anyone tells you that Y2K was hype or an over-reaction, I can promise you it was proof that coordinated, proactive measures can avert disaster and are never valued enough.
Then my boss asked me to focus on strengthening the sales team. That’s when I really started to venture out into conferences and hangars and shops. It was more design consultancy than pitching and selling. We had to understand the design aim of the airline and how that aim could be produced consistently and within the regulatory requirements. Suddenly, all that work I had done in the shop, all those hours spent learning every intricacy of regulation, all that learning became a powerful asset.
One of the greatest challenges was persuading engineers that you knew what you were talking about. As a young woman, I always entered the room at a perceived disadvantage. There is little that builds trust and respect in the industry as much as when you come in to listen, and are able to navigate your way through the lingo when the other people in the room assume you don’t understand what they’re saying. Once you crack that, people pay attention.
From there, I moved around – a lot. For a while, I was traveling up to forty weeks a year. I was ultimately promoted to lead what had once again become a profitable, flourishing business. It was quite a high, while it lasted. We got through 9/11 with determination and teamwork, but we weren’t able to survive a sabotage that came later.
My advice to anyone working in the industry during these trying times is that sometimes things fall apart, no matter how hard you fight to keep them together. But phoenixes can rise from ashes to conquer the skies anew. Don’t be afraid. Be a phoenix.
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