Accenture Travel: You’ve had quite a career. What excites you most about the airline industry?
Elise Eberwein: Ever since I started as a flight attendant, I loved learning about new cultures, people and places. It’s been a passion of mine at every juncture along the way.
All facets of the industry are changing—and it’s a challenge. The sheer infrastructure from the ground up—manufacturing to end-to-end customer service—needs process overhauls and more technology solutions. This massive undertaking is in progress— piece by piece.
AT: Accenture’s research reveals a culture of equality is a powerful multiplier of innovation and growth. In fact, innovation mindset is six times higher in the most-equal cultures. What is your take on that?
EE: That doesn’t surprise me one bit. Accenture’s findings are spot on. My feeling is the sum is greater than the parts. Think about any successful venture—it takes teamwork, whether it’s sports, engineering, or orchestrating a flight crew. Airlines are smarter when they hire employees with different backgrounds and experience to create broader and more helpful outcomes.
AT: How can airlines leverage digital and technology to advance equal leadership opportunities for women?
EE: There are not a lot of women CEOs in the airline industry, but it’s not for lack of talent or selection. I think the airline industry has been somewhat one-dimensional in its approach to the top spot – meaning, typical recruits come from finance or operations backgrounds, which tend to be male dominated.
Yet, people with knowledge of customer relations, marketing, technology—even support functions or regulatory experience—can be terrific candidates for the C-suite. Applicants with these qualifications now are in the running and that’s positive.
Providing a better work/life balance also is key for more women in leadership roles.
It begins with education. New technology is ushering in an opportunity for young adults to get involved in studies that lean more in this direction. STEM programs, as well as courses in ethics and human resource practices, offer them a wide-angle view that prepares them to be a part of business in a way that converges with a fully holistic view.
AT: Which technology and trend do you see as the most disruptive – negative and the positive – for the airline industry and why?
EE: Every area of the industry is undergoing a seismic shift. Legacy airlines compete with smaller, low-cost carriers and online travel agencies, as well as with other distribution platforms like Google.
American Airlines has 6700 flights with 500,000 passengers flying around the world every day. There’s a huge day-to-day business to run. While at the same time, we must be forward thinking—looking at everything from online ticketing to what’s next in aircraft design.
The future is upon us. We know it’s coming—people are reaching the mindset where they won’t think twice about flying in a device that runs on automation and artificial intelligence without a human in the cockpit. Testing already is underway for planes with just a single pilot—or no pilot at all. I predict that will happen with speed and efficiency—within the next 5-to-10 years.
I’m not talking about jumbo jets taking off from New York or Los Angeles. But smaller air-taxi service, in less populated areas, is quite likely.
AT: Research from Accenture Technology Vision 2019, reveals workers are becoming human+, empowered by new technology—alongside their own skills and expertise. How can companies prepare the digital workforce for what will truly set their airline apart?
EE: Let’s just look at the call center. Most people—especially younger generations—won’t even consider being on the phone with an agent to book a ticket. It’s not the experience they need or want. Online bookings free up human capital to do more significant and meaningful work. We need to be at the forefront—to be as streamlined and efficient as we can.
On the other hand, we have a responsibility for our longtime and loyal employees. Since the financial crisis more than a decade ago, the industry has seen waves of pay cuts and layoffs. Many people in their 50s can’t afford to retire. This population, if they are to remain relevant, must upgrade their own skills and we must aid that evolution.
Airlines now can do more with fewer people. But at the end of the day, we also work hard to give our people a soft landing—offering early-out packages and other incentives that provide a cushion for those transitions.
AT: Do you have any specific wisdom or advice for fellow women travelers?
EE: Safety is first. And confidence is key. A smile is a universal thing. I encourage exploring other cultures with respect. People all over the world are proud to share what they know. So, go with a smile and an open mind.
My strategy is to travel self-sufficiently. I take my own backpack, water, food and an iPad with my own content. It’s nice sometimes to enjoy all the extras, but when I travel, I go well prepared.
Last summer, my husband and I took a rigorous, two-week camping, hiking and rafting trip—200 miles down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was an unbelievable trek—20 people, five boats and incredible guides with amazing knowledge of the history and archeology.
Absolutely no electronic devices—a true digital detox. It was a delight to see the faces of children happy to witness one of the great wonders of the world right there in front of them versus on a small screen.
I’ve traveled across all continents—but I’ve not yet summited Kilimanjaro. That’s next! I’ve still got places to go.