C-Suite: Claudia Sender, Vice-President of Customers, LATAM Airlines Group, and CEO of LATAM Brasil

Image via LATAM Airlines

APEX Insight: A strong emphasis on diversity, innovation and sustainability has propelled LATAM’s Claudia Sender into the international spotlight as Brazil’s first-ever female airline CEO.

Claudia Sender has always been unstoppably ambitious. During her childhood in São Paulo, she dreamt of following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a doctor. But when it came time to choose a focus in university, she realized she wanted the freedom to apply her talents across multiple fields: “I wanted to work with something more analytical, so I pursued a degree in chemical engineering, as there I saw an opportunity for transformative work in different sectors.”

In 1998, while studying at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo, Sender landed a strategic consulting internship at Bain & Company. This role sharpened her strategic mindset and opened her eyes to the possibilities and challenges of the business world. It was also her first foray into the world of air travel; here, Sender worked on projects for TAM Airlines and other major carriers long before the aviation industry became the main focus of her career. 

After two years at Bain, Sender moved to the United States to pursue an MBA at Harvard University, seeking to hone her executive mentality and broaden her perspectives. She credits her swift professional rise to lessons learned at Harvard: It was here that she first recognized the potential of organizational diversity. “[At Harvard,] I witnessed the true power of diversity and how much better project outcomes are once you bring different perspectives to the table.” 

Post-MBA, Sender completed a seven-year stint at Whirlpool Latin America, where she quickly worked her way up to vice-president of Marketing. Her diverse educational background, combined with the results she delivered at Whirlpool, were instrumental in earning her the role of commercial and marketing vice-president at TAM in 2011, one year before the merger of LAN and TAM airlines that would form the LATAM Airlines Group. Just two years later, at the age of 38, Sender became CEO of LATAM Brasil – one of the youngest airline CEOs in the world, and the first woman to lead a Brazilian airline.

“It’s important to stress Brazil’s immense potential and the effort it’s making to face structural obstacles, uncertainties and insecurities.”

As vice-president of Customers, LATAM Airlines Group, and CEO at LATAM Brasil, Sender’s current focus is overcoming the challenges presented by an economic recession. March 2017 marked the end of a 19-month uninterrupted economic downturn in Brazil that led to spikes in fuel costs, increases in airline taxation and an eight-percent drop in demand for domestic flights. Together, these factors resulted in huge financial losses for airlines throughout Latin America. Although the economy is showing signs of recovery, the fight isn’t over: Financial growth is slow, and foreign investments are down in the face of an uncertain presidential election in October.

Sender, however, remains confident about economic recovery: “It’s important to stress Brazil’s immense potential and the effort it’s making to face structural obstacles, uncertainties and insecurities. Aviation has much to contribute to the development of our economies and infrastructure, given that it’s a sector that creates a wide range of jobs and income-generating opportunities.”

This year has already shown improvements for the LATAM group – Q1 operating revenues rose over 10 percent from 2017. Sender attributes this growth to a renewed focus on the passenger experience. “Recently, we have intensified our focus on providing a more consistent and unique LATAM experience through the consolidation of services and products,” she explains. “We want our customers to not only have the best network in South America, but also enjoy the most benefits through our frequent flyer program, and have a great experience with our teams on board and on the ground.”

Under the airline’s new sales model, travelers can unbundle services and only pay for what they’ll use, like checked bags or seats with extra legroom. LATAM is also continuing to expand its domestic and global networks: Last year, the airline launched 13 new international routes, and this year it announced 17 more routes, including flights from São Paulo to Rome or Las Vegas, and Lima to San José (Costa Rica). 

Under Sender’s leadership, LATAM continues to be a global leader in environmentally sustainable aviation. It’s the only airline in Latin America (and one of just three worldwide) to join the Dow Jones World Sustainability Index for the fourth consecutive year. “With one of the most modern and eco-efficient fleets in the world, LATAM Airlines Group is 10 percent more efficient than the industry average in fuel consumption,” Sender says. “We reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a sustainable manner through measures such as the LATAM Fuel Program, which generated savings of 50 million gallons of fuel in 2017.”

“Gender, with a focus on female empowerment, is one of the pillars guiding our work on diversity.”

Sender is also working to position LATAM as a workplace diversity leader, and has helped instate policies aimed at hiring more women for senior roles: “Gender, with a focus on female empowerment, is one of the pillars guiding our work on diversity. One of the ways through which we try to bring more women to senior positions is by guaranteeing that there’s at least one female professional in the short list for any senior vacancy and that we have more women in the interview process.”

Sender has worked hard to build an environment where all are free to express themselves without discrimination. She observes that “being diverse means much more than having different people on the team. Everybody must feel included and comfortable enough to contribute their ideas. Innovative ideas, which bring a new way of looking at situations and solving problems, do not come from equal minds.” 

So, what innovations are in store for LATAM Brasil customers? This year, the airline group is launching a retrofit of its Boeing 777 and Boeing 767 fleets. It’s also set to launch in-flight Wi-Fi for domestic flights. Finally, the airline group continues to announce new international flight options: “The next confirmed new destinations for this year are Boston (July), Lisbon (September) and Tel Aviv (December),” Sender reveals. “A lot of good news for our customers!” 

This C-Suite was originally published in the 8.4 August/September issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Fergus Baird is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Montreal. Follow his oddball alter ego on Twitter and Instagram for observations on weird life in the city and beyond.