We were delighted to have the opportunity to quiz Linda Celestino, Vice President of Guest Experience & delivery At Etihad Airways. With over 32 years of experience from cabin crew member to now a lady at the top of the ladder, whilst also being a mother of five, She is without a doubt the airline industries very own Wonderwoman.
What does your present job entail?
As Vice President of Guest Experience & Delivery, I lead and manage the division that is responsible for the entire guest journey and all guest touchpoints from start to finish. From the moment a guest decides to book their tickets online or makes their initial enquiry via the contact center, to the time they check-in at the airport, the entire in-flight experience and all the way through to the moment they land at their final destination and collect their baggage. Throughout this entire journey, we aim to deliver the best experiences for all of our guests, every step of the way.
Where did your aviation journey start & how do you juggle work/life balance?
I’ve been in the airline industry for 32 years now, and counting!
My first position in the industry was at Ansett Australia as a cabin crew member and that led to a career and adventure of a lifetime! From there I had the opportunity to work my way up through the ranks and become a Senior Manager in guest services and guest experience. Years later, I moved to the Middle-East where I worked at Emirates Airlines and Gulf Air, holding various positions including leading the cabin crew recruitment, training and performance teams.
As General Manager of Inflight Services & Product at Oman Air, I took my first steps into product development and service design, and then in 2015, I took on the role of Vice President of Guest Services at Etihad Airways and recently transitioned from that role to my current one, which is now Vice President of Guest Experience & Delivery. The culmination of my entire career – in one role!
Work-life balance? When I work that out I’ll be writing that book! As a mother of five, I strive for balance to ensure the many hats I wear don’t fall off!
The reality is many women in executive roles still feel guilty for not achieving it all and continually struggle to work out that perfect work-life balance. That balance isn’t necessarily equal with the two sides achieving equal weight. Some days the balance shifts according to what’s happening in my organization and work life or what’s happening at home. There is a constant ebb and flow and you need to create your own definition of balance.
Only 5% of airline CEO’s are women. What role can airlines play in improving the gender equality gap?
It’s true, most other industries have forged ahead in improving the gender equality gap. The good news is that the approach globally is moving forward, and the wider aviation industry has to catch up eventually – even if there has been little change in the past few years. I am optimistic about the slow but sure increase of women in the airlines’ executive ranks, and see this as a measure of success. We have a long way to go, but the future really is brighter than when I started my career.
What are the challenges of working as a female in the industry across the board?
We women who take the steps to venture into male-dominated industries often face a variety of challenges such as a lack of support, lower income, a misguided perception of incompetence and overall lack of voice.
The aviation industry is ever moving, ever changing and competition for roles at the top is fierce. It feels as though the changes are occurring slowly, however, I am pleased to see positive steps within my own airline taking place: increased networking options, senior execs being open to dialogue and creating the space to have the right conversations whilst challenging the norm.
When it comes to amenity kits, the majority of those deciding on amenities are male, how can airlines ensure that their final offering is accessible across genders?
Regardless of whether the committee or team that decides on the amenities is comprised mainly of male or female executives, I believe the ultimate aim is to please the guest. Considerable resources are invested into understanding our guests, including the extensive face-to-face time our front-line staff and crew have with guests. It is this in-depth understanding of our brand, our guests and our customer philosophy that drives our decision making.
Having worked in the Middle East for some time, what is the biggest development you’ve seen within that market of the industry?
That would be the importance of social media influencing marketing to enhance brand advocacy and profitability. The impact of ‘social media influencers’ on driving consumer brand awareness, especially among millennials, has reached record highs in the UAE since I’ve been in the region.
At Etihad, we believe that influencer-marketing enables us to tap into the digital community and more effectively reach new audiences, promoting advocacy of our brand. Based on recent learnings, if executed properly with the right ‘social media influencers’ and messaging – can result in a strong return on investment. By continuously evolving and enhancing creative new ways to tell our story in a highly competitive landscape, we are seeing great successes. Our social media platforms have seen a spike in followers given our strong partnerships with popular Emiratis in the community that have a large following and appealing content. Together our messaging is succinct and compelling, encouraging new guests to fly with us and in turn becoming advocates for our brand.
With the increased fluidity of movement, how will airlines through innovation tackle the on-demand service that is now expected from the passenger, from cabin interiors and the aircraft, to the amenity kits and in-flight entertainment?
Etihad already offers 1000+ hours of on-demand entertainment across our fleet. On our state of the art IFE platform, guests have the ability to create customized audio and video playlists; as an example, on our flagship 787 Dreamliner and a380 fleet, the Panasonic EX3 platform is customized to enable guests to filter unwanted genres.
The roadmap in the near future will see the introduction of a companion app that supports a second screen experience and further personalization. Additionally, the IFE platform will soon extend the experience for the guest beyond entertainment and into self-service channels enabling activities such as in-flight ordering, digital publications and access to a variety of partnership-based products & services.
The IFE platform, along with the mobile companion app, will be a key data collection tool allowing us to gather greater guest behavior insights. This will allow us to provide more relevant choices, from the types of TV shows and movies guests prefer to the type of ancillary products a guest would be most likely to purchase. The future of this platform is within the wider connected cabin concept that enables further data collection from sensors and facial recognition technologies.
More recently, the journey in the cabin as a complete sensorial experience is being explored. How important are onboard amenities and amenity kits to this concept and how will they be realized?
Our research shows the high importance guests place on amenity kits in our premium cabins, which complements the cabin sensorial experience.
Our product and service teams focus on ensuring complete alignment across all touchpoints of the guest journey.
Every element of the customer experience is looked at from colors, materials and even up to the notes contained within the air freshener. The team relies heavily on market research and focus groups with our guests. A few of our products have evolved to serve a dual purpose – a great example is our First Class amenity kit that can also be used as a tablet case, extending the experience onboard to the ground and effectively, everyday life.
A common thread in the industry is the discussion of consumerizing passenger data to create a far more personalized experience. What are your thoughts on this?
Personalisation is really the logical end state of a segmentation strategy which we have pursued for many years. The difference is that technology will allow us to make those segments – ‘tailored offerings based on sensitivities’ – even smaller. That is because the amount of data and the capability of ‘rules engines’ (powered by machine learning) allow us to be more precise about targeting. But tech also drives automation allowing us to deliver many offers on the same plane. Without automation that would be impractical for our frontline staff, especially onboard crew.
With increased technology onboard will come increased exposure through social media, advertising etc. How will this enhance the in-flight experience?
Advancements in in-flight technology and advertising engines will help us target ads to our guests based on their tastes and interests and this should be a welcome intrusion.
Etihad currently has a 100% connected fleet and in the near future, we hope to enhance our onboard Wi-Fi service to not only help guests keep connected throughout their journey, but also drive usage of additional online services beyond social media. Higher bandwidth connectivity in-flight will enable Etihad Airways to provide improved quality of service, delivery of more live and streamed content and offer improved access to business/workplace platforms for greater productivity inflight.
While the focus on technology may seem heavy, the key lies in making the engagement with technology simple and meaningful where it clearly adds value to the guest journey.
What is your favorite City?
So hard to choose! but if I had to – Sydney, my beautiful hometown, followed closely by Amsterdam….oh those canals!
Where is your favorite holiday destination?
Aspen – snowboarding with my kids!
Do you have a best on-board tipple?
Piper Heidsick, of course, or San Pellegrino, depending on the time of day.
What is your favorite onboard product?
It has to be Wi-Fi and live TV, for all the wrong, or right, reasons – so I can work, check emails and stay connected with the world.
What is your best holiday read?
Anything non-fiction! Real life is way more interesting. I am an autobiography fan, being invited to walk the steps of someone else’s life experience is the best read ever.