After being inspired by female mentors early in his career, Cristian Sutter is keen to help drive equality in the aviation industry, especially given the slow progress so far.
Sutter is the chief executive of Avensis, which specializes in passenger-to-freighter conversions, and is also the first advocate member in Europe of the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA).
“Throughout my career, I was very lucky to work with very talented women in the aviation industry. And they generously mentored me and helped me to fast-track my career to the place I am today,” Sutter explains. “At the same time, I witnessed many of the inequalities and the challenges that women had to overcome to succeed within this industry.”
IAWA’s mission is to empower female leaders in the aviation and aerospace industries, and it describes an advocate as “a man, or a person who identifies as male, who otherwise meets the requirements of membership in any other category. An Advocate is not a member, but will support, promote, back, encourage and sponsor IAWA.”
Cabin design specialist Sutter said that hearing from his early mentors about the challenges they had to face made him realize he wanted to help influence change.
“I thought it was only right to use my position to actively get involved in supporting and driving the agenda of bridging that gap between women and men in the aviation industry,” Sutter tells AeroTime in an interview.
Claire Richardson, an aerospace design engineer at Avensis, joins us for the interview. Her story will probably be all too familiar to many women who have struggled to get into the aviation industry. Despite being fascinated with how what are essentially big lumps of metal get into the sky, it was only after leaving school, when she was 21, that she realized the career opportunities.
“Although I did really well in manufacturing technology, math and science, I just had no idea I could make an exciting career out of them. It was all very stereotypical roles that were being offered,” she explains.
It was a chance meeting with a person who had their own aviation business and who offered Richardson an apprenticeship that changed her life and set her on the path of aerospace design.
“Even when I was at college during my apprenticeship, I was the only girl in my lectures,” Richardson reminisces. “From my experience, I think more needs to be done to drive awareness that there are amazing opportunities available. And that there are different career choices for women and people from different backgrounds.”
Sutter says while there has been progress in achieving equality in aviation, it hasn’t been as fast as it should have been. “That’s why having roles like being an advocate for IAWA is so important.
“I think it sounds very counterintuitive, being a male advocate driving the women and diversity agenda, because essentially, we outnumber women in the aviation industry. But having said that, we can use our position now to drive the agenda of removing the blockers and become enablers in paving the way.”
Riding the cargo wave
Avensis tapped into a growing market during the pandemic, with its passenger-to-freighter conversions. With passenger planes grounded due to COVID-19 restrictions, many carriers had to adapt to be able to continue carrying freight around, especially healthcare products.
Avensis offers a range of conversions, including ones that can minimize cabin changes and are easily reversible, right through to a permanent modification including a Main Deck Cargo Door (MDCD) and full cargo loading system.
Richardson explains that it takes about six to eight weeks to physically modify cabins. To transform passenger cabins into cargo compartments, items such as seats and luggage bins have to be removed, then fire suppression and smoke detection systems installed, as well as smoke curtains and cargo liners.
“I thought there was a huge opportunity to fill that void in creating the right passenger-to-freighter conversion products,” says Sutter, who has designed cabins for aircraft ranging from the Airbus A320 to the Boeing 787 and the biggest of them all – the A380.
“And at the end of the day, moving from passengers into passenger-to-freighter conversions was the next natural step in my career. We’re still talking about cabins. It is all about designing and engineering the right cabin for the right purpose, whether it’s transporting people, cargo or both.”
Sutter says the demand for passenger-to-freighter conversions is still strong and predicts it will continue to grow, despite the war in Ukraine and tough COVID-19 restrictions in Asia.
“On the other hand, the express market fueled by E-commerce growth doesn’t show any signs of wearing out anytime soon,” he predicts. “Our nature is to work with portfolio solutions and products. And we’re actively working on developing new products to match the next market demands.”
Creating a pipeline of talent
Like many in the aviation industry, Richardson had to find work in a different branch during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s happy to be back in aviation now though, working for Avensis.
“It was great to see another sector, and I really enjoyed it. But there is something about aviation that I just love. And it’s fascinating, working in aviation. And I love how that pushes you to be your best and to grow as an engineer.”
Staff shortages have, however, been a topic as the aviation industry recovers from the pandemic, with many companies struggling to rehire people who have left for other industries.
“I think one of the biggest issues that the aviation industry, and many industries, are facing post-pandemic is that they haven’t realized that people do not necessarily want to come back to the place where they were before or to do exactly the same things that they did before,” Sutter says.
“At Avensis, we have created a flexible, remote and very non-hierarchical working structure that allows our teams and team members to enjoy a balance between personal and working lives, and avoiding commuting hours to get to an office, or even living away from family members or loved ones for weeks on end.”
In addition, promoting diversity makes for more effective working and a stronger company, Sutter believes.
“At the end of the day, having a diverse workforce allows us to create a better working environment,” he says. “For us in Avensis, this is all to do with creating a company culture and a company workplace where everyone can freely grow and develop themselves and become the best version of ourselves.”
Finally, both Sutter and Richardson urge anyone interested in a career in aviation to go for it, be curious, and ask questions because people are usually keen to help.
“From my experience, not all opportunities are advertised,” Richardson says. “So don’t be afraid to reach out to people. You never know, the worst they’re going to say is no, or they could give you the best opportunity of your life.”