May 19, 2024

The Boss: Of Airlines and Aerobatics

My parents sent me to school in England, where I studied economic theory at the London School of Economics. I was heading for a career in economics before being attracted to aviation. While at graduate school, I used my savings to get my pilot’s license and soon developed a love of competitive aerobatics.

My first job after graduation was working at Miami International Airport as the assistant to Dick Judy, the aviation director. He was an exceptional boss who instilled in me the importance of independent thinking, of developing the talents of those around me and of always striving to improve.

In 1989, I joined British Airways, managing several different administrative areas for the company in North America. Within several years, I had reached a ceiling for someone with no experience managing a mainstream part of the business.

But to gain that experience, I needed to take a step back within the company, and a substantial pay cut. I decided to take the risk and took the job of country manager for British Airways in the Czech Republic. It seemed a terrifying decision at the time, but it worked out well. Business in the region turned around quickly for the airline, and I was rewarded with a promotion: running the larger Latin America and Caribbean divisions.

A senior executive at the company questioned my temperament to manage large groups of employees in a unionized environment. Proving him wrong became an important personal objective. I left British Airways to become president of Worldwide Flight Services, a company that provides services like cleaning and refueling planes and loading bags. It’s one of the less glamorous areas of aviation and one of the toughest.

In 2001 I joined Sabena, the Belgian airline, as part of a team charged with turning the business around. The company was not doing well financially, and we were in the process of restructuring it when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Sabena could not withstand the travel recession that followed and closed its doors within a couple of months. Not all risks have rewards.

In 2002, I joined Hawaiian Airlines. Three months later, we filed for bankruptcy and began restructuring. We made money during the bankruptcy, allowing us to pay back our creditors and leaving us in good shape for the future. Since then, the company has done well and we are now expanding into Asia.

I’ve been able to live my dream of having a stimulating job in the industry that marries my love of aviation with my interest in travel. Everything I’ve learned has been because of mistakes I’ve made. You can’t be in aviation if you don’t have a certain appetite for risk and a love of competition. We live in a world where people are dissuaded from taking career risks, but where many talented people forgo great opportunities by being too conservative.

In my free time, I fly a Giles G-202, a carbon-fiber aerobatic airplane. It’s capable of the full range of extraordinary aerobatic maneuvers that have been developed in the last 30 years. My wife and family won’t fly with me when I’m doing acrobatics. Until this past summer, I could say that I’d never made any of my passengers ill. Then my nephew Trevor unceremoniously spoiled my perfect record — and the inside of my airplane.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

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