Ground handling is not the most gender diverse aviation industry sector but TUI Aviation is bucking the trend and has women in key operational roles, write Justin Burns.
Women have played a pivotal role in aviation over the last 100 years, but top industry positions have been dominated in recent decades by men. However, it seems this trend could finally be changing (with the notable exception, it could be said, of ground handling).
One high profile female airline CEO of recent times was Carolyn McCall, who led EasyJet for seven years from 2010. During her time at the helm, the carrier’s share price almost quadrupled.
Other key positions held by women include Joanna Geraghty, who is president and chief operating officer of JetBlue, while Anne Rigail was appointed CEO of Air France in December 2018 and Dawn Wilson was named as TUI Airways MD in November last year.
Meanwhile, the number of female airline pilots is still low and recent research taken from the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISWAP) by online travel platform fromAtoB found the global average in the cockpit was only 5.2 per cent.
Ground handling it is fair to say, is arguably the aviation industry sector that has the least diversity, partly due to it not having the glamour of other areas and due to the nature of work that can be very physically demanding.
Not though at TUI Aviation, which has two women in highly responsible and key roles, both of whom are at the forefront of ground handling operations in the UK and Ireland – something that might come as a surprise to some.
Both play a key role in ensuring ground handling operations are efficiently carried out for the 63 aircraft that TUI operates from various airports in the region to about 160 destinations.
Aviation love affair
Experienced industry professional Tammy McKenzie is head of ground operations in the UK, Ireland and the Nordics for TUI and has worked in aviation since 1990.
Speaking at the AGS Global Networking Summit in September, Tammy said her love affair started with the industry in 1990 as cabin crew for 10 years, before she left to work in retail for a few years, only to miss the industry and secure her first job with TUI 15 years ago.
She has been head of ground operations at TUI for the last 18 months. Prior to joining TUI, Tammy held roles as cabin crew resource & development manager, head of crew planning, operations training manager, flight operations training manager and ground training manager.
After nearly three decades in the industry, McKenzie believes that aviation is getting more diverse. “Females in aviation is positive, as there are quite a lot,” she said. “If you look at TUI alone, we have a female MD, a female director of operations and a female director of in-flight service and on our board of directors. We have about a 40/60 split of males and females, nearly 50/50.”
McKenzie said that TUI is very strong on diversity and equal opportunities and in more than 15 years of working for the company, being a female has never held her back from any opportunity within the business.
“I think TUI is very positive for that diversity but not in the wider ground operations industry. Why is it not attracting many females and is it dominated by males?” she says.
Her colleague Nikki Ozols is area manager of ground operations for UK & Ireland at TUI Aviation, a role she has held June 2017. She is responsible for operational delivery of the carrier’s ground operations in the UK and Ireland, including safety and compliance, customer service, cost and OTP KPI’s.
Ozols started her career in aviation by accident nine years ago at Flybe after returning from her travels. Since then, she has been a quality auditor at the Exeter-based airline, which she left in April 2013, and has also been a safety and compliance officer at ExecuJet, and compliance officer at Qatar Airways.
She has no regrets about how her career path has led her into the ground handling sector over the last four years, and her passion for the industry is evident.
“It is a very dynamic industry,” she says. “I didn’t start out as a student to move into this industry and it just happened by accident, but it is very interesting and very exciting and subject to change. There is also a wide scope of learning if you are someone who likes to be challenged and to learn new things.”
Ground handling is certainly becoming a tough and demanding sector of commercial aviation as passenger traffic grows, but while Nikki said that despite the challenge growing every year, it is one she relishes day-to-day.
“I think ground handling is really interesting, regardless of your gender, as it gives you are really good oversight into airport operations, which is a huge part of any airline’s operation,” she says.
Lack of diversity in ground handling
The number of women working on the ramp and in ground handling operations does seem low, and both McKenzie and Ozols are exceptions to the norm it seems.
Whenever you seem to lookout to the airport apron during an aircraft turnaround, it is clear, maybe due to the nature and physicality of ground operations, that gender diversity is limited.
McKenzie agrees, as said when you get to the ground operations side of aviation it is a different story to other sectors, as there is a lack of diversity and it is dominated by males.
However, it seems not so at TUI, where she noted on her ground handling operations team of around 30, there is a nice balance of males and females.
“When you come outside of TUI and look at the airports, handling agents, etc, that is where you know that there is definitely a more prominent male population than female,” McKenzie says.
“I think the thing is, how do we get more women into similar positions across airports and ground handling companies as well. Maybe part of it is that people work their way through the ranks,” she adds.
Ozols notes that being a woman in ground handling at TUI is great, as it is a balanced workforce. However, when she goes out to stakeholder meetings and to other parts of the industry, it is noticeable that it is predominately men who occupy the roles.
“I do not believe in the UK that is detrimental though, and I think everyone works well together and I do not think that gender is an issue, other than it does seem not to attract as many women for different reasons,” she says, adding: “However, it is certainly not an area of the aviation industry that women should discount working in.”
Ozols said there is “no two ways about it” that when you go to an aircraft turnaround it is very rare that the ramp handler, cargo agent or dispatcher is a woman.
However, on a positive note, she said there are more and more women becoming dispatchers but generally, ground handling teams are mainly made up of men.
Gender diversity will help industry grow
Both McKenzie and Ozols feel the ground handling industry has become too traditional and is stuck in the past, and although more technology and innovation is slowly being adopted, it is not coming at a fast-enough pace.
“Ground handling is so behind when it comes to technology,” McKenzie says. “It is not moving quick enough. There is so much talk about innovation and being more digital. There is always a challenge of investment, as it will always be the airport or the airline making that.”
“You have got to take people with you. We still have people sitting behind the check-in desks, still doing the same job they did years ago, and we are still doing the same things on the ramp.”
McKenzie feels that the ground handling industry needs to move away from its traditional ways and in 10 years’ time, ground handling cannot still be using the same technology as it does today and there needs to be an injection of fresh ears and eyes.
In her opinion, the more gender diversity and mix of staff the better, as a balance of skills, expertise and new thinking will help drive the industry forward in the future – just as it seems other sectors within aviation have done over the last decade.
Ground handling might not have the same gender diversity as some sectors within aviation, but it is good to see the trend is changing and more women are getting into the industry.
Judging from the experiences and careers of Ozols and McKenzie, the opportunities do exist for ambitious and driven women who have a passion for aviation.