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Aviation industry success rests on diversity: executives

The aviation industry’s competitiveness in the coming decades increasingly rests on a diverse and well-educated workforce, including more representation from groups that are currently largely overlooked, a panel of executives tells participants of the annual ALTA Airline Leaders Forum in Brasilia.

Four executives from across the sector in Latin America tell the forum on 29 October that it will be difficult to achieve the growth of which they believe the industry is capable if it does not reach out to sub-sets of the population which have not traditionally been a sizeable part of the aviation ecosystem.

“We can’t get anything else right if we don’t get the people right,” Donna Hrinak, president of Boeing Latin America says, adding that the industry will have to work on several fronts to meet the projected demand of 800,000 new pilots and 600,000 new mechanics in the next two decades. Training and a mindset shift are integral factors to attack these issues.

Much of the panel discussion on the final day of the meeting in Brazil's capital revolved around gender diversity, though all speakers acknowledged that this was not the only type of inequity holding companies back. Two of the four panelists spoke out in favor of gender-based quotas, a controversial method of increasing female representation in corporate entities.

“It would be great if we were in a world where we are gender neutral. But we’re not there yet,” Hrinak, a proponent of quotas, says. “I have seen study after study that say if you take names off the resumes, more women and more ethnic minorities will get hired.” A first step, she adds, is to try to be conscious of the unconscious biases that create the conditions for corporate monocultures.

Embracing diversity is a strong economic driver and key to running a profitable business, but it requires increasing a company’s risk profile and stepping out of one’s comfort zone, the executives agree.

“Control is the enemy of diversity,” says Julia Sattel, president of airlines at technology provider Amadeus. “You are taking a risk.” But the more able the company is to quickly adapt to global environments, in the end, the more successful it will be.

“We have more than 150 different nationalities working in our company, and I have seen that is one of the best competitive differentiators,” she says.

“If we don’t see the things, we can’t do anything to change them," says Sylvia Escovar, chief executive of Colombian oil and gas company Terpel. "But if we see the problems and talk about them then we can make changes.”

Terpel introduced gender quotas not only for top leadership, but also for lower-level employees in technical areas and jobs that are not traditionally attractive to or held by women. As a result, the fuel provider has moved from 29% to 39% female representation across the company and expects its workforce to be 45% female by the end of next year, Escovar says.

“There are women out there that we are just not seeing,” Diana Einterz, SITA president of the Americas tells conference participants. Women do not promote themselves as effectively as men, she adds, saying though, that she is skeptical of quotas as a means of creating a level playing field.

“Everyone has to know why [hiring and promotion] decisions were made and that those decisions are fair,” she adds. “My job is not to create an environment where everybody’s happy, my job is to create an environment where everyone can succeed with the talents they have, and be fulfilled.”

A recent FlightGlobal survey of the world’s biggest passenger operators showed that it could be the mid-2050s before there is an equal split between female and male incumbents in senior executive positions at airlines.

The survey, conducted earlier this year of carriers and groups that feature in FlightGlobal's top 100 World Airline Rankings by 2018 revenue passenger-kilometres, also shows that gender diversity in the C-suite of airlines continues to lag that seen in the wider economy. The eight Latin American operators covered in the survey employ women in 10% of the senior roles surveyed – up from 9% in 2018 – or 8% when the HR director function is discounted.

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