Women In Aviation International Conference 2007

 - March 28, 2007, 5:31 AM

Although the annual conference is Women in Aviation International’s biggest event, the association’s influence extends far beyond the two-day conference. In fact, company leaders attribute some of their success to membership in professional organizations such as WAI.

Tracy Chaplin, COO of Clearwater, Fla.-headquartered fractional provider Avantair, is one such executive.

Ask Chaplin what she does for a living and she’s likely to tell you she helps people find their own solutions. “I’m a fixer. I’m always up for a challenge,” she said.
Before joining the fractional provider in February last year, Chaplin served as the chief purchasing officer at Flight Options, where she was responsible for a $400 million budget that included fuel and charter management, maintenance contracts, avionics, catering and logistics. Before that she worked for 13 years in various maintenance-related capacities for Emery Worldwide Airlines.

Founded in 2002 by pilot Steven Santo, Avantair operates a fleet of 32 Piaggio Avanti IIs and has another 51 on order. The company also recently announced an order for 20 Embraer Phenom 100 light jets, and earned a ticker symbol on the Nasdaq exchange.

With so much momentum at the company, Chaplin has her work cut out for her as Avantair grows from boutique provider to sizeable competitor. One of her primary concerns is ensuring that Avantair maintains an acceptable ratio of customers to available aircraft.

“[The] fractional [business] is relatively young when you consider aviation as a whole. Everybody is trying to come up with the right mix,” she said.

Beyond Customer-service Training
Chaplin said one of the reasons she joined Avantair was because it is a relatively small company with a distinctive product and, she hoped, plenty of potential for growth. One of the first things she did was convince Santo to let her initiate an employee empowerment program designed to give individuals a more direct stake in the company’s performance.

“The program replaced customer service training that never got beyond basic good manners,” she said. “We all want our employees to be courteous; however, we were looking for something more.

We encourage employees to embrace our standards and guidelines, but there are situations that require them to ‘color outside the lines.’”

Each of Avantair’s more than 270 employees meets with a corporate trainer to learn the philosophy behind the program, which is essentially to make customer service a top priority. “I set standards but not necessarily the rules,” said Chaplin. “There’s not always a black-and-white answer. Given our industry, with trying to deal with the weather, with ATC, it gives them the skills to deal with these issues.”

The program has been mostly well received, Chaplin said, but it took some time to get the message across through articles in the company newsletter, and by offering incentives and awards to employees who demonstrated they could implement these principles effectively. “I had to do a little work with my maintenance group. You get the roll of the eyes with, ‘I’ve been through customer service training before.’ But this is how we want you to live your job every day, and how we want you to treat customers. We’ve had to do a little soft sell.”

Chaplin is not a pilot, though she has taken a wide variety of aviation maintenance and other courses. She said that being a member of professional organizations such as Women in Aviation International has helped her to network and recruit good people. “I might not be an expert in every area, but I know where to get the information,” she said. “Even if you never turned a wrench on an airplane, you have to understand how it works.”

Gaining that knowledge takes experience, a fact Chaplin says many people coming up in aviation are unwilling to accept. “Experience is so important in aviation. I see a lot of people in the industry who are closed minded to that. They miss a lot of opportunities because they don’t understand how golden experience is to them.”