Women in Aviation Conference

 - September 19, 2006, 6:33 AM

User fees, career-building strategies and striking a balance between professional success and personal achievements topped the agenda at the 17th annual Women in Aviation International (WAI) conference, held from March 23 to 25 in Nashville, Tenn. The three-day conference set attendance records for the association, as more than 3,100 people from all segments of the industry attended.

GAMA president and CEO Pete Bunce set the optimistic tone for the conference at the media breakfast, commenting that changes in technology– among them new, more efficient engines, and the imminent certification of the new class of very light jets (VLJs)–portend good times for the industry.

Bunce also alluded to contentions that VLJs will darken the skies and create congestion in the ATC system. On the contrary, he said, the soon-to-be-certified airplanes from manufacturers such as Cessna, Eclipse, Embraer and Adam, will relieve congestion by getting people off the roads, diffusing traffic near the airline hubs and encouraging more people to use aircraft for business.

The prospect of user fees weighed heavily on the minds of conference attendees. And well it should. During the corporate aviation panel audience member Liz Clarke, a pilot for FedEx, urged participants to “keep your ear to what’s going on in the industry, especially the political. If it affects the business, it affects you.”

During the panel, audience member NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen fielded a question about the prospect of user fees and their effect on the industry. He commented that the FAA has plans in the near term to change its funding structure
to one that treats all airplanes– regardless of size or number of passengers–the same. Bolen added, “This is the most significant fight that the industry has had in decades” and said that the proposed plan would shift $2 billion in costs from the airlines to general aviation.

He added that his association opposes the proposed plan because it adds administrative costs and requires a large bureaucracy, whereas the money collected from the current fuel-tax system goes directly to the federal coffers. Moreover, he said, a private board–one that is not accountable to the public– will set the user fees.

The NBAA leader encouraged attendees to contact their members of Congress and urge them to oppose user fees. The agency has a “contact Congress” section on its Web site (www.nbaa.org) to make it easy for users to get in touch with their representatives.

No Need for a Master Plan

The theme of this year’s WAI conference was “How to Reach New Heights of Success,” and, somewhat surprisingly, a number of keynote speakers highlighted the role chance played in their success and downplayed the importance of having a master plan for their careers.

Carolyn Blum, who will retire this year as regional administrator of the FAA’s Southern Region, explained that although she did not begin with a “master plan,” she found herself, 38 years later, at the end of a rewarding career she never would have expected.

Major General Betty Mullis (retired) of the U.S. Air Force, the first rated pilot female officer in that branch of the service to attain the rank of general officer, continued where Blum left off and gave one of the most stirring speeches of the conference. She, too, asserted that she succeeded despite having no plan for her career.

Nonetheless, Mullis tried to give attendees a road map for reaching new heights of success. Much of her advice centered on approaching every responsibility with the right attitude. She reminded the audience, “The most important job you have is the job you have right now.” She urged attendees always to do the best job they can at their current job, regardless of whether or not they plan to stay, and not fear taking risks, because those attributes will serve them well in the job they wish to get.

Moreover, acknowledging that the aviation industry can be unstable, Mullis urged attendees to stay inspired about their dreams and not to be discouraged by the state of the industry or the state of the military. She advised that down cycles in either provide a good opportunity for getting the training and education necessary to advance, adding, “The training requirements are out there for all to see. Don’t whine about it. Get it.”

The keynote speakers also focused their attention on the importance of striking a balance between professional success and achieving personal goals, advising that true success incorporates equal measures of both. Blum emphasized the importance of striking balance in one’s life, insisting that “achievements and success don’t add up to happiness if you don’t have balance.” Further, she noted that an individual’s priorities can, will and should change, and should therefore be reassessed accordingly.

At Saturday’s general session, Nicole Piasecki, vice president of business strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, related success to striking a personal-professional balance. Acknowledging “this is a tough business to be in,” Piasecki emphasized that balancing individual aspirations with the company’s goals is critical to success, if success is understood–as it should be–to include “being the people we want to be.”
Spotlight on

Corporate Aviation

Corporate aviation had a high profile at this year’s conference, as the speaker at this year’s lunch hails from the corporate segment. Pat Andrews, ExxonMobil’s manager of aviation services, delivered the address. She began by commenting that success can be a scary word, because its definition is so fluid.

She explained that it frequently leaves one to wonder “Where is there?” Andrews emphasized the importance of making choices and taking risks, urging attendees to ask themselves, “What do you think you can’t do? And what if you are wrong?”

Attendees were clearly interested in learning more about corporate aviation, as they turned out en masse for Women in Corporate Aviation’s panel discussion. The session gave attendees a look at the many opportunities available in corporate aviation beyond piloting an airplane. Among the panelists were an FBO manager, aviation lawyer, A&P mechanic, flight attendant and customer-service representative. The most pressing issues for the audience members were networking, job security and striking a balance between professional success and meeting personal goals.

One pilot asked how to find out if a company has a corporate flight department. Panelists cited NBAA as a particularly useful resource, and also pointed out that the Internet has changed the job search and hiring process and that not all companies use the “old boys’ network” anymore.

The “hidden job market” remained a source of interest, and attendees wanted to learn how to get information that is circulated by word of mouth rather than posted in the traditional way. Panelists urged attendees to use the membership services offered by organizations to which they belong, such as Women in Aviation (www.wai.org) or Women in Corporate Aviation (www.wca-intl.org), to make connections and learn about potential jobs.

Another way to learn about specific jobs and job opportunities is through internships, which are also difficult to find. Panelists at the pilot career panel advised audience members to consider some often overlooked facets of aviation–pipeline patrol, flying skydivers and traffic watch, to name a few–as a means of getting their foot in the door.

In addition to professional associations and internships, professional societies provide an opportunity for networking and skill building. These associations offer various certifications that people can obtain to hone a broad set a of skills.

As expected, speakers and panelists emphasized the importance of networking, as jobs that are here today are gone tomorrow. In fact, Mullis, now a pilot for FedEx, met the person who helped her land that job at a Women in Aviation conference. At the general session she advised, “There are great opportunities here, ladies and gentlemen.”

Panelists were quick to point out that growth in the industry is good for everyone, not just pilots, noting that companies are looking for talent in all facets of aviation–customer service, sales, maintenance, line service and so on. In fact, they mentioned that the VLJ market could help the industry to explode by bringing business aviation to people it was never available to before.

Weighing Career Options

While some attendees had already set their sights on the field of corporate aviation, others were eager to learn how a career in corporate aviation differs from one in commercial aviation. Individual priorities are a determining factor in choosing between corporate and commercial aviation, the panelists emphasized. Corporate aviation, they explained, provides “a wonderful quality of life,” but it also has a lot of ups and downs because it depends heavily on the economy and the financial health of the company operating the flight department. The airlines, on the other hand, offer a bit more predictability.

Similarly, they advised, individuals should consider whether they prefer a progressive or performance-based environment. According to the panelists, corporate aviation provides a more fluid environment that rewards aptitude, whereas the more static airline environment rewards longevity.

When a similar question arose at the pilot career panel, which featured pilots from commercial and corporate aviation, panelists explained that personal preference was an important element of their decision-making process. Ava Sumpter-Shubat, president of Women in Corporate Aviation and a Falcon 50EX pilot for a Fortune 500 company, explained that she is a jack of all trades, noting that she is responsible for loading bags and overseeing the catering. If it gets done in the airplane she flies, “I make it happen,” she said. She noted, however, that some prefer a job that limits their responsibility to flying the airplane.

Panelists on the pilot career panel–representing the airlines, the corporate segment, the fractionals and freight carriers– echoed the optimism of earlier speakers, predicting a rosy future for aviation. Pilots for Southwest, JetBlue, NetJets and UPS each said that their respective companies are hiring, at rates varying from conservative to brisk. Some of those companies are also taking delivery of a number of airplanes, portending continued hiring for the near term.

Looking toward the Last Frontier

In line with the theme of this year’s conference, speakers Brian Binnie, the SpaceShipOne test pilot who clinched the X-Prize for Scaled Composites; former space shuttle commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson; and former space shuttle mission commander Eileen Collins reflected on the past, present and future of space travel for private individuals.

Binnie, business manager for Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne program, told attendees, “Your chances of following in the footsteps of Collins and Gibson are pretty slim” unless the current paradigm changes and people begin to see that NASA shouldn’t have a monopoly on space travel.

And that change is already under way, he reported, adding that there are exciting times ahead for personal space travel, as some individuals–among them Sir Richard Branson and Paul Allen–are backing the construction of vehicles designed for personal transport into space. More good news, he said, is that some 1,000 people have already paid exorbitant prices for a trip into space when it becomes available; as the technology matures, he added, those prices will become more affordable, opening space to progressively more people. He concluded, “This is going to happen; the FAA is completely serious” about the prospect of personal travel into space.