March 4, 2021
‘Surviving & Thriving’ – championing the women across Virgin Atlantic; sharing individual stories of how they’ve survived and thrived over the last 12 months.
Tell us a bit about your role at Virgin Atlantic…
I have the wonderful role of Head of Cargo Operations, which means I have responsibility for our global cargo ops teams and all of our 3rd party handling contracts. My primary focus is ensuring safety security and compliance and driving excellent operational performance whilst trying our best to deliver on our amazing Virgin customer service every day.
I joined Virgin 20 years ago (in April!), having previously worked for Airbus and started this incredible journey as a design Engineer, looking after landing gear, wheels, and brakes. I moved into Engineering safety after a few years and then became Deputy Quality Manager in the now called Quality Assurance team. In 2013 I became Head of Safety, a huge role that gave me a fantastic view of the business from both an operational safety and a Health & Safety perspective. I moved into Cargo in January 2018 and I’m not entirely sure where those three years have gone (well the last 12 months…maybe!).
What were your ambitions growing up, and did you see any barriers to getting where you wanted to be?
When I was very small, I wanted to fly. Two of my uncles were pilots and I was obsessed with aircraft from then. I grew up in Bahrain and had a great friend who was going to be the pilot and I would be cabin crew. However, as I got older, my love for all things mechanical grew and on leaving school, I chose to go to university to do a mechanical engineering degree because, being obsessed with cars, I wanted a career in Formula 1.
During my placement year at university, I was offered a year with Airbus in Toulouse. It sounded like a great opportunity and who wouldn’t want to work in the South of France! I spent a year working in their Design Engineer team and absolutely fell in love with the world of aviation. They offered me a job in their Bristol office and so I joined the moment I had completed my degree and the rest is a wonderful career working with aircraft. I don’t regret the change in direction at all, aviation is very fast-moving, every day is different, and you can never plan your weeks or even your days. The opportunities for progression are great, and all the roles are unique – and that was before Covid-19!
What gives you the most job satisfaction?
Without a doubt, working with our people. I genuinely feel so lucky to be part of this team and the way everyone pulls together is amazing. It feels like every day, someone comes up with a new idea, or we break another record, or we solve that problem that we thought was going to stop us in our tracks. Being part of that is what makes me get up every day and try my best.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
With the reduction in passenger flying, it has been vital to our business to switch on extra cargo flying and we’ve had to be innovative in how we seek new business. In 2020, we worked with our amazing operations teams across the airline and with the authorities to be able to carry cargo in the cabin on our passenger seats, therefore increasing the amount we could carry on each flight.
Our first flights were to China and due to entry restrictions for our crew, we also had to gain approval to fly there and back with the seven flight crew staying on board and switching ‘teams’ for the return journey. An incredibly complex process and we only had a few weeks to do it in. I will never forget being on the arrival stand at Heathrow as the very first aircraft taxied in from Shanghai to a guard of honour from our ground handlers, full of emergency medical supplies. It was an emotional experience and on going up to the flight deck, I was expecting to be met by some very tired pilots who probably didn’t want to speak to me but they were buzzing and so proud of what they had just done. A very humbling experience to be part of.
What has been your experience of living through the pandemic?
I have worked throughout the pandemic, doing a mix of working from our cargo facility in Heathrow and working from home. The safety of our teams who are unable work from home has been key and we are pleased to be supported by a great team doing Covid-19 testing for those people, so we can all have peace of mind. Before the pandemic, I and the rest of the cargo LT travelled a lot as we had our own teams, suppliers, and customers to meet with. For me, being so remote from our people around the world is the real downside but we try to do as much as we can via video calls. It has been hard to continue working at the pace we are for over a year now and fatigue is certainly a concern for everyone from a well-being point of view.
On a personal note, we have always wanted a dog and so my husband and I, like many others, took the opportunity of lockdown to get a gorgeous puppy – Eric. He really keeps us on our toes and is a great way to force some time away from the computer, even just for a 30 minute walk and he makes me laugh every day.
I think the way we have had to change the way we work through this pandemic has shown me just how amazing the power of teamwork is and having one common goal. We as a business have achieved things that we never would have thought possible before and in much shorter timescales – it has been quite incredible to witness. Personally, I have learnt that I am pretty resilient but that I do have a limit and have learnt what to look for in myself that signifies I need to take time out. I also think it’s been a real eye-opener in terms of what’s important in life – our health, family and friends and I have seen wonderful examples of humanity at its best.
How do you think gender equality in the workplace has evolved over the years?
I’ve always worked in a heavily male-dominated environment. I was part of the very first intake of girls at a secondary all-boys school and at university, I was one of eleven girls out of over a hundred in our year. Whilst I knew I was in the minority I never thought of it as an issue as such, I guess having become very accustomed to these environments throughout my life.
However, giving it more consideration in recent years with the focus we as an industry have on diversity, I have learnt that women are less likely to push themselves forward for a role, even if they are a great fit. They may take more time mulling it over, or they will wait a little longer to be given an opportunity. It is a huge generalisation, but I think women need to work harder at promoting themselves. I am definitely an example of this; I was in engineering, safety and compliance roles for years, and I would have happily spent my entire career there. It wasn’t until one of our senior leaders encouraged me to go for a new role that I considered moving out of my comfort zone.
Virgin Atlantic is a really inclusive company where people are encouraged to be the best version of themselves. In terms of demographics, airlines have a tough job due to the high number of pilots and engineers for example who are largely male. To be successful, the industry needs to target schools and universities to encourage students to apply for jobs in our sector so that selection pools are more diverse.
As a leader yourself, what leadership qualities do you feel are most important?
For me, I really value trust and integrity. I would never ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself and I think people are at their best when they feel supported. The biggest challenge I’ve had as a leader recently is not having the face to face contact with our teams, it’s tough when you are in meetings all day to show that you are there for people when they need you.
Describe what it’s like to work for Virgin Atlantic in three words…
Challenging, embracing and addictive!
Find out more about the inspirational women of Virgin Atlantic on our International Women’s Day page