In the world of airline careers, there are many unsung roles. All kinds of clever people and complex factors determine how we get you up into the sky, some of which seem far removed from the aircraft, pilots and cabin crew who make up the final part of the process.
Sarah Read is a case in point. As an external affairs specialist in the Government Affairs team, Sarah looks after air transport agreements, or bilaterals, which are treaties between nations that enable commercial airlines to fly.
These international agreements govern the frequency of flights and the ability to fly from, over and land in the other party’s country. They exist in many forms and have been around since the Chicago Convention in the 1940s, which established the International Civil Aviation Organization. It’s Sarah’s job to understand these agreements, work with the UK government who negotiate the freedoms, and support the business when it comes to where, when and how we fly. We caught up with her for a quick Q&A after a recent trip to Delhi for talks between the UK and Indian governments.
Sarah, what was the aim of the Delhi discussions and how did they go?
We were there to talk about boosting tourism and trade between Britain and India, namely by opening up limits on flights from key Indian cities including Chennai and Kolkata, allowing for a greater range of flights.
The UK is in a unique position (Virgin Atlantic are a key reason for this) in that it has UK airlines challenging its legacy flag carrier. As a result the UK customer has a wealth of choice, as this promotes good competition and value. The UK Government wants to see this continue for the UK’s airlines, airports and businesses, therefore its objective is to seek liberal agreements that allow airlines to compete. Airlines from both countries will often attend these meetings to provide market information to the government before it enters into talks, as well as raising any ‘doing business’ issues we may have.
How does Virgin Atlantic play a role in the creation of new bilateral agreements?
We work closely with the Department for Transport who have responsibility for the air service agreements. All airlines will use them for advice, as some agreements are very complex. We liaise with them to address issues and challenges we may face internationally and seek to influence where we can by providing evidence from our respective businesses.
What kind of interest do we have in the agreements in general, particularly those between the UK and destinations not currently on our route map?
While the agreements cover a number of countries we may not fly to, they provide instruction on code share partnerships or charter flight activity. We may fly over a region or explore the opportunity of a new route so it’s important to have access to all of these agreements, and decipher the treaty language they’re often written in.
Tell us a little about your background and how you came to the role
I joined the company in 2000; it was my second job after university. I was obsessed with travel but hadn’t yet figured out how I’d combine seeing the world with earning money. I figured getting into a great company like Virgin would be a good start. I applied for a role in the contact centre and have since worked in different roles and departments including on projects and in HR. However, my interest in international relations remained, guiding me to Government Affairs. The contact centre was a great place to get to know the business, our customers and what’s important to them. I’d occasionally go back to assist when needed but the technology and skills have moved on so much now I’d probably be more of a hindrance than a help.
What kind of skills are useful in the work you do? Would you say this field suits a particular personality or mindset?
Like most of the jobs at Virgin Atlantic I’d say it’s about the person rather than just qualifications, but being adaptable, consistent and willing to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in are certainly skills that have served me well.
There are a few courses out there that cover aviation policy and advocacy as part of a bigger qualification, and an interest in politics, regulation and policy will get you through those long hours of reading and then responding to consultations.
Government Affairs are often the link between the business and the external world so you have to quickly understand the issue and put it into a language that works for different audiences. You need to be inquisitive, not afraid to ask questions, and be able to instantly form close working relationships. These skills can be acquired in a number of roles, as were mine so there are many routes in.
Could you describe a typical week in your working life?
It’s fantastically varied, so for instance I was at the above meeting in Delhi on a Monday, then I met with our airport manager before my flight home on the Tuesday. Wednesday I was attending a stakeholder meeting at the Department for Transport about aviation strategy and Brexit. Thursday and Friday were office days, sending out email updates and catching up on other aspects of my role. Some weeks I can be totally office based but may well be on a number of international calls.
What have been some of your most memorable experiences while working for Virgin Atlantic?
I know it’s trite but there are a lot, and the main theme of all of them has been the people. When I think about them now it makes me smile, whether sharing amazing experiences with my loved ones, or escapades with my colleagues (I won’t name you) that no one would believe. It’s often during the toughest times we’ve faced – 9/11, the SARS crisis, the volcanic ash cloud; the list goes on – that I’ve seen the people of the business at their very best and this is most memorable for me and the reason I’m here. Oh and the brilliant flight perks, of course.
Our people are at the heart of our business. Think you’re a good fit for us? Find out more about life at Virgin Atlantic.