Inspiring Women Leaders in Transport

Women in Transport Network

Dawn Wilson​

Managing Director, Northern Region Airlines, TUI Airways & TUI Fly Nordic

Women in Transport Network

Meet Dawn

Dawn began her aviation career over 30 years ago as cabin crew and has gone on to hold many senior roles at various airlines, from Head of Cabin Crew at Britannia Airways, to Head of Ground Operations at Thomson, and then Director of Airline Operations with TUI Airways. In January 2019, Dawn was appointed Managing Director for TUI Airways and TUI fly Nordic in Scandinavia. In addition to her Northern Region responsibilities, Dawn is also Director of Airline Operations for TUI Aviation, optimising the opportunities to work more closely across TUI Group’s five airlines, and sits on both the TUI Aviation and TUI UK & Ireland Market Board. When not at work, Dawn enjoys yoga and cooking, splitting her time between the UK and her recently renovated home in Italy with her partner Andrew.
1. Tell us about your career so far and what attracted you to work in the Aviation industry?

I grew up in a small town in the north. During my school years, I met a lady who was cabin crew for British Airways. I remember listening to her talk about all the different aspects of the airline industry. It included the operational aspects and how you deal with unexpected events like delays, as well as managing customers. Soon after graduating university in Nottingham, I joined an airline as a junior cabin crew member, and the rest is history. I became a union representative, so interacted directly with the Management team, which helped me understand how decisions are made early on in my career. Over time I developed my understanding of ground operations, customer service and the commercial environment, plus flight operations. This breadth of experience leading different team and the various aspects of running an airline has been invaluable, especially during the pandemic. ​

2. What career highlight are you really proud of?

The pandemic has been unprecedented as there is no booklet/procedure to tell you how to handle a crisis of this scale over such a sustained period of time. We’ve had to feel our way through as there have been many twists and turns along the way. We’ve had our fleet grounded for months, which is indescribable and something I never thought I would see in my career. The impact on people has been unmatched; pilots and cabin crew haven’t been able to fly for the first time ever. It’s therefore been incredibly important that I spent time with the team, to keep staff motivated, engaged and updated. . We’ve kept up engagement with regular webinars for honest and regular communication and by getting staff involved in volunteering opportunities, for example at Nightingale hospitals and administering vaccines. Another significant moment I am proud of is the repatriation of 45,000 customers across 60 countries in the first month of the pandemic. It is important to give clear directions in a crisis, as every employee looks at the management for direction. The leadership responsibility on leaders is immense. ​

3. What has been the most challenging part of your career and how did you overcome this?

In my first few months of becoming the Managing Director for TUI Airways we had the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft grounded globally and TUI Airways are the only UK registered airline with the MAX aircraft, the implications of Brexit and the collapse of Thomas Cook, who we used as an airline partner for our customers. We then had to put in place growth of the business due to the unfortunate demise of Thomas Cook, prior to the impact of Covid-19.

4. How has the industry fared in managing the challenges posed by the pandemic and where will the industry be in the next five years? ​

It’s no doubt been a challenging time for everyone in the travel industry. The next years will be a defining moment for aviation as every business will be carrying a huge amount of debt and that will limit how we all invest and grow. The industry is likely to shrink in the next five years. Our customers will not have as much disposable income and the consumer demand for holidays will change, although we know that many of our customers are still looking forward to a well-deserved holiday. As people are becoming more aware of health and safety, ensuring strict standards are in place on aircraft will be more important than ever. I believe the pace of digitalisation will be accelerated, driven partly by the need for efficiencies and giving customers value propositions. We expect a lot more content to be provided through digital means, such as interaction with customers when they want it. There may likely be new players that emerge in the leisure market to substitute for the likely reduction in business travel. There will also be a lot more focus on sustainability. and ensuring we take our responsibility seriously around sustainable tourism.

5. How have you remained positive during the crisis and looked after your wellbeing and mental health? ​

One of the first things I established was some sort of a routine. I used to go for a walk for 45 minutes in the morning, instead of my commute time. I maintained those sorts of routines to keep myself functioning as normal. I worked from Italy for a while, and the change of location helped with my equilibrium. At TUI, we are promoting a ‘work-cation’ for customers and employees in the future. Health and wellbeing is important at this time. There is also a need to find a way to balance different requirements. The challenge for businesses going forward is to find a way to accommodate different preferences, and the need for flexibility/working styles in the future. ​

6. What can the industry do to attract and retain high-calibre women? ​

Unconscious bias is the key thing businesses and employees should address. At TUI, we have been stimulating thinking by giving some employees a survey/questionnaire about bias. Positively, leadership roles in TUI Aviation are pretty much 50-50 men/women. But I think more needs to be done among pilot and engineering roles as we don’t see enough of a pipeline of females and those from different ethnic background coming through considering these roles for their career path. Working with the Department of Education, the industry needs to encourage women from a young age and get them interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Also working with local communities, initiating the dialogue with # about careers in engineering and flight operations, bringing them to the workplace and showing them operational areas such as Maintenance Hangars is important to get them excited about a career in Aviation.

7. What advice would you give your younger self? ​

Have confidence and believe in yourself. Don’t be overawed by people who seem incredibly confident, they may just be good at projecting themselves. Have the self-confidence and believe in what you bring to the table. You are where you are because of your strengths, so focus on this. Learn to love yourself. Don’t always believe the hype of others. ​

8. What would be your three top tips for women who want to break the glass ceiling? ​

1. Women are customers of businesses just like men, so they have a crucial role to play in business leadership as they can relate to a huge segment of end-customers. Believe you have a role to play​.

2. Focus on what you are good at and enjoy. Don’t try too hard to excel in every area but surround yourself with people who have a complementary skill set​.

3. Be prepared to change course but don’t give up on success.

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