From left: LATAM Brasil CEO Emeritus Claudia Sender, Oman Air SVP Guest Experience and Branding Xia Cai, Viasat Senior Vice President and CFO Shawn Duffy, JetBlue Airways Director Product Development Mariya Stoyanova, Etihad Airways Vice President Guest Services and Delivery Linda Celestino, APEX Executive Director Katie Katie Geraghty Goshgarian. Image: Roger Williams

The first-ever APEX EXPO Women Leaders in Aviation Networking Lunch focused on innovation and leadership. It was moderated by Shawn Duffy, senior vice-president and chief financial officer of Viasat, which sponsored the luncheon.

When asked about the meaning of innovation, Linda Celestino, vice-president of Guest Services and Delivery at Etihad Airways, said “You have to pivot really quickly and pick up and keep running.” She pointed out the airline’s eco-flight – the longest commercial flight without any single-use plastics on board – as an example of how the airline pivoted. The airline eliminated 98 items on the flight, which took off from Abu Dhabi and landed in Brisbane on Earth Day this year.

Image: Vance Walstra

Innovative concepts must be affordable, scalable and relevant for the customer in order to succeed, added Claudia Sender, CEO Emeritus, LATAM Brasil. When the airline was redesigning its business-class service, it discovered that its customers valued rest most, so the airline shortened the length of the in-flight service.

Xia Cai, senior vice-president, Guest Experience and Branding, Oman Air, agreed, citing the misconception that innovation is about invention: “You can have a great invention, but if it doesn’t add value to your customers, it stops there.”

“You can have a great invention, but if it doesn’t add value to your customers, it stops there.” – Xia Ca, Oman Air

Innovation is also about anticipating customers’ future needs, explained Mariya Stoyanova, director of Product Development at JetBlue Airways: “I think we were able to do that with our FlyFi in-flight Wi-Fi product, in partnership with Viasat, making it free. If it’s on the ground, why shouldn’t it be in the air.”

Duffy then turned the conversation to what it takes to be a leader. Confidence and competence are essential leadership qualities, according to Sender.Leaders also need to work across borders – between departments, not countries – and look at problems in a more holistic way,” she said.

Duffy compared this kind of collaborative problem solving to a Rubik’s Cube: “Everyone can do one side, it’s when you solve all sides simultaneously that you’ve created something winning.”

“A good leader is comfortable with being uncomfortable,” – Mariya Stoyanova, JetBlue

Celestino identified credibility as a third “C” of leadership, insisting that relationships drive business, whether between you and your customer, your direct reports or your suppliers. Leaders should also strike a balance between offering support and providing space for their team to make mistakes, said Cai.

“A good leader is comfortable with being uncomfortable,” added Stoyanova. But there’s a limit. “Stay true to yourself. The moment something doesn’t feel right, listen to your gut.”