Student pilot Joanne launches sustainable soap business during pandemic

Joanne Milne was in the process of training for her Commercial Pilot Licence when the pandemic hit. But the 27-year-old student refused to be despondent. Instead, she used her time to pursue a path in business and set up a soap-making company. 

Prior to Covid-19, Joanne’s interest in aviation began when she was at one of the universities in Glasgow. While studying psychology, Joanne was also part of the Royal Air Force where she started learning the ins and outs of flying as a member of the air cadets program.

“I got to do a bunch of other activities as well, like skiing and rock climbing. I got to travel around Europe quite a bit, which was fun at the time,” Joanne says. “And, then, once I graduated from university, I switched to aviation after I saw that easyJet had set up an MPL scheme (a Multi-Crew Pilot Licence (MPL) program where pilots are trained directly for co-pilot duties). I applied for it and started my career as a pilot.”

Having signed up for the training program with the British low-cost airline, Joanne was determined to pilot an Airbus A320 commercial aircraft as soon as possible.  

“I should have completed my training and I was expecting to receive a good conditional job offer in the airline afterward, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed all of that,” she says.

The pandemic meant that Joanne’s training was put on hold. When the UK Government announced the first lockdown, Joanne says she didn’t initially realize what was going to happen next. And since nobody knew what the future held, easyJet began offering voluntary redundancies to its staff. 

“The airline decided not to employ any new pilots in order to protect the workforce it already has, which was fair. But this decision, unfortunately, included us [pilots-cadets], because we weren‘t counted as official employees since we hadn‘t signed any contracts yet. And, unfortunately, our program was closed down. We were given an option either to stay on the MPL program but without the sponsorship of easyJet this time, or we could switch the license type and apply for the ATPL license [Airline Transport Pilot Licence], which would give us the option to work for other airlines in the future. And that‘s what I decided to do.”

The student pilot says that the lockdown period for her was stressful and upsetting because she had already spent a year and a half training. Joanne admits that the financial aspect also hit her hard.

She says: “When you sign up at the start, you have the expectation of one thing, which then turns into something completely different. It was very strange, very stressful, and quite upsetting because I felt like it was a huge achievement to get onto the MPL program in the first place. And to sort of have that pulled out from underneath you, even though it wasn’t something that you had done…The pandemic was just bigger than all of us. And it felt quite scary.“

Joanne knew that every decision she made would affect her life for the next decade.

Although she never wanted to quit aviation, the lockdown forcibly postponed all of her career plans. And now she had unexpected time in her schedule, she wanted to use it wisely. The student, who traveled a lot before the pandemic, decided to put what she had experienced on various journeys to good use. 

“I had so much time on my hands, and I was doing nothing. So, I thought, this might be an opportunity rather than a curse. I’ve always been a sort of entrepreneurial-minded person and always wanted to start a small business. The lockdown gave me a perfect time that I could explore the environment and decide what kind of business I would like to open,” she says.

“I find it really frustrating when you’re packing your suitcase and it’s full of single-use plastic and liquids. So, when it comes to body wash, shampoo, and other types of necessary items for a traveler, it’s mandatory for a person to buy it in super small containers, so that s/he could get them through security. The other option is to buy solid products, like solid soap, so a person can just pack these items in his suitcase. So, I ended up with the idea of making soap.”

The importance of hygiene increased significantly during the pandemic and Joanne noticed that, due to regular handwashing, people were complaining about dry skin. So she conducted some research into the most common ingredients found in liquid soaps.

“It turned out that the ingredients were pretty cheap, and not great for a person’s hands. I decided that I wanted to come up with my own formulation that I could give to my family and my friends that wouldn’t dry their hands out. And that’s what I managed to do.”

Joanne started making homemade vegan and plastic-free soaps following a formulation of her own. The new activity went so well that she even created her own brand called ‘Aviator Soaps’. While the student pilot won’t reveal too many secrets, she does say that her ingredients include five simple oils, among them olive oil and butter. 

“My aim is to make sure that all the ingredients that I use are good for the environment and sustainable, as well as being good for your hands,” Joanne smiles.

The entrepreneur admits that setting up a small business was challenging – but also rewarding. Since Joanne didn‘t want to borrow any money from a financial institution to get started, her family and close friends supported her financially, allowing her to buy initial supplies in order to make her first batches of soap. In the meantime, she was busy researching chemistry basics to devise a proper technique for soap-making. Having started out producing soap in her kitchen, Joanne later purchased dedicated equipment and, as she says, the more she produced, the better the final product became.

“Currently, I have six soaps in my range. One is deliberately unscented for people who have sensitive skin, and the rest are various flavours. So there’s something in there for everyone. The soaps I make are free from harsh ingredients and are zero-waste with upcycled plastic-free packaging.”

As Joanne has already gained the trust of her regular customers, her goal now is to further expand the assortment of beautifully handmade products. 

“I would love to expand into creating my zero-waste product line that you can use whenever you travel. For instance, things like solid shampoo bars, solid deodorants, solid toothpaste tabs – so that you could go on holiday and pack all of your toiletries avoiding buying unnecessary plastic packaging as numbers of people on board the plane do. The miniature plastic bottles that people use for a week, it‘s very wasteful and I’m trying to reduce this travelers’ habit.”

Even though the soap-making business is going well, Joanne has not given up on her aviation ambitions. The student pilot hopes that she will soon return to the intense training process. When asked which commercial aircraft she would love to fly on, Joanne admits that she has always dreamed about flying to long-haul destinations. But she says that the short-haul operations on a popular Airbus A320 narrow-body jet would also be good.

“I’m still really keen to get to the airline as a pilot as soon as I get my Commercial Pilot License. Hopefully, I should be finished with my training in the next few months. I still would love to be a First Officer for a European airline.”


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