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Digital talent in aviation: Jenny Walsh chairs a panel at the World Aviation Festival

Venari Partners’ Head of Client Relations led discussion with four industry leaders

It is no secret that the past few years have been challenging for recruitment in aviation. While the industry has recovered well from the pandemic, even reporting a remarkable return to profitability this year, many airlines are still coming to terms with the shakeup of working patterns brought about by COVID-19 – especially for what concerns digital talent. With digital and tech an area of key interest for aviation, it is more important than ever for carriers to ensure their approach is on point in order to develop, attract, and retain the strongest candidates.

On 26 September, we were delighted to see Venari Partners’ Head of Client Relations, Jenny Walsh, chair a panel discussion on this very topic at the World Aviation Festival’s Talent Summit in Lisbon. The session, titled ‘How do we develop digital talent and ensure we keep up with the rapid digitalization happening in the aviation industry?’, featured the below guest speakers:

They discussed a range of topics over the course of 45 intriguing minutes, from developing talent internally, bringing in candidates from outside the industry, the role of AI in aviation, and DEI initiatives.

Meeting challenges

For Alina, considering what the aviation industry has to offer digital talent is crucial, from development opportunities to ‘attractive new technologies’. Thinking about the structure of an airline from an outsider’s perspective, and how it would look to someone coming in from a tech company, is helpful – to a point. Tristan cited a Delta CEO who said he wanted the company to become ‘a digital company with an airline on the side’: an ambition that Tristan admires, while recognising that ‘to become a tech company, you have to mimic many of those great things tech companies do’. This entails upskilling significantly, with specifically trained managers and infrastructures that, traditionally, have not existed in aviation. ‘I think it is a real challenge for us to lead in that space,’ he admitted.

Sticking the landing

At the same time, Jeroen believes that airlines shouldn’t try to be something they’re not, even joking about not allowing his CFO to say that Transavia is an IT company: ‘We’re an airline; let’s be proud of the product we have.’ For him, this is front and centre of any carrier’s EVP (employee value proposition) and can even be used to attract candidates from outside the industry. Tristan agreed, describing the allure of aviation as ‘an asset’. However, this might not be enough on its own. In Joe’s view, digital talent usually want a problem to solve – or, as he put it, ‘something to go at’. This, coupled with the benefits and culture of an airline, can help to draw candidates from areas like e-commerce and retail. ‘For me, it’s super important that your EVP is focused on the challenge ahead’, he said. This can entail shaking up things internally. Alina noted that people having people join from outside aviation means that the industry must be ‘open to learn, and also to experiment.’

The importance of retention

Joe recognised the need to consider career paths and what aviation can offer new recruits going forward – though this shouldn’t come at the expense of current employees, either. Keeping staff abreast of new developments and changes is crucial for ensuring they – and, by extension, their companies – don’t get left behind. Jeroen spoke of initiatives at Transavia to encourage workers, from joining conferences to receiving performance development in order to boost their learning.

It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to AI; like many industries, airlines are also feeling their way into using it and seeing how it might affect the sector. Alina discussed how airBaltic have been experimenting with machine learning for analysing external insights and trends; by contrast, Transavia are ‘not yet dealing with generative AI within the company.’ While this will certainly change at some point, in the meantime Jeroen has urged colleagues to experiment with programmes like ChatGPT privately, noting how important it is ‘to start understanding [that] this is the way I can change my work’. AI will not only affect how employees operate internally, as Tristan noted; it also has significant ramifications for customer interaction and experience. After some successful early experiments, he sees AI as ‘an augmentation, rather than a replacement,’ of existing services provided by Etihad’s contact centre; he also cited the usefulness of AI for tasks like writing code at speed.

Joe and Alina commented further on the potential of machine learning to drive efficiency, ultimately making employees more valuable and giving them more meaningful work. Nonetheless, the panel also discussed the potential stumbling blocks of using AI, from complications around regulation and safety to potential legal ramifications (for example, candidates who believe they’ve been filtered out of contention by machine learning). Keeping staff updated with best practice guidelines for its use will be of utmost importance as the industry navigates its way through the changing environment.

Diversity in aviation

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is another prevalent subject in aviation currently, and the panel discussed measures their companies have taken to ensure their digital and tech teams are open to all. At easyJet, policies start with inclusion first, ‘which will drive equity and diversity.’ Joe noted that different areas of airlines will normally have their own challenges to surpass when it comes to DEI – for example, a lack of gender diversity among pilots – and easyJet are seeking to address root causes of such problems at grassroots level. ‘We have to be open to everyone,’ Joe noted, while ensuring that hiring processes are fair and accessible to a diverse range of candidates.

airBaltic, meanwhile, have reinforced their approach with internal training on DEI and a refreshed hiring policy to try and diversify the gender balance of their pilots and technical crew alike. She regards it as ‘part of our job’ to explain externally what the airline is doing to drive change. At Etihad, they are working to ensure products are tested by a diverse range of people, while Jeroen describes diversity as being part of Transavia’s business model. For what concerns IT, he admitted that ‘it is a challenge for us to see how we can make our talent feel at home’, with Transavia looking to DEI to provide solutions to this end. This even translates, literally, into language barriers; Jeroen mentioned the need to push ‘to get everything into English’ from Dutch to accommodate the carrier’s many English speakers.

The rise of remote working

The pandemic saw a dramatic change in working patterns, with large numbers of people continuing to engage in hybrid or full home working long after the easing of most COVID restrictions. Jenny noted that this has created a ‘global community, global employment, in digital and technology, that’s probably a bit more advanced’ than other industries. It’s particularly easy for so-called ‘digital nomads’ to work from anywhere, with some companies operating entirely remotely. There are always pros and cons to such setups, of course, and it’s no different for aviation.

For instance, Tristan described the lack of chance meetings with colleagues as an adverse effect of working from home, and believes it’s necessary ‘to force people together, at least occasionally, during the year’ to ensure adequate collaboration. Of course, a pilot can’t dial in to work via Zoom, and while there are ‘two cultures’ (i.e., crew and operational staff) in airlines, airBaltic have embraced remote working for the latter at least – though Alina did note the ‘constraints’ and legal implications to be aware of, such as GDPR and cybersecurity. Joe linked remote working to easyJet’s broader hiring policy, noting that they’ve had to look further afield since the pandemic. ‘If you’re inviting people to come to the office, it has to be activity-led,’ he said. ‘You don’t want to waste people’s time’.

Looking ahead

Jenny’s last question concerned future developments and trends for aviation, and each panellist had different predictions and topics to look out for. ‘Our model, the way we travel, of course – and the way that sustainability and the environment will be part of the discussion’, will have dramatic effects on the industry, Jeroen said. This will be challenging, naturally, though there are possibilities inherent in the scenario. Separately, AI is likely to have large impacts both on talent and the products on offer to customers. Tristan, meanwhile, predicted that aviation will eventually come to resemble industries like e-commerce – ‘not just because we’ll be able to have more talent and people will want to come, but also because of the smaller companies and startups’ who will want to get involved.

From a talent perspective, there is still a huge opportunity – especially in digital and engineering – ‘where we can exploit people who are coming into their careers, and are digitally savvy anyway,’ Joe observed. Some airlines might offer internships for early-stage candidates, though in his view carriers would do well to focus their attention on providing more long-term career routes for less experienced talent to ‘nurture it and make it our own.’ Alina concluded by highlighting the success of airBaltic’s teaching initiatives, with IT and leadership programmes slated for development. ‘If we see that that brings the exact skillset with the culture fit, then it’s worth investing in that.’

Many thanks to the guests for a fascinating discussion!

We are passionate about helping airlines with digital and tech talent – as well as assisting with DEI goals. Please contact us if you would like to find out more.


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