by Lysanne Currie
With a (literally) high-flying career over three decades, Gabriella Somerville’s flight path has taken her from air hostess to aircraft sales. As founder and managing director of private aviation services company, ConnectJets, she talks to us about the challenges of the aviation industry post Brexit, improving the gender balance and the rise of transformational travel . . .
L.C: With an uncle who was a squadron leader in the Red Arrows, and a father who took you to air displays as a kid, it’s almost as if you have jet fuel in your blood…
G.S: Well, my architect dad thought he was going to have a ‘Gabriel’! In preparation he made me a little wooden aircraft and from age two I was playing with planes and going to air shows. He never saw any stigma in taking me and that fed through to when I started to make career choices.
L.C: How did your career first take-off, so to speak?
G.S: My first job was as cabin crew with British Island Airways, and it felt like home. I had to go for 10 interviews and failed, but on the eleventh I got in. Six months later I went for a job with Virgin Atlantic. The gentleman at the interview said, ‘You’re not the lady, who lives with the other stewardesses, who had that wild party a few weeks ago?’ I came out and called the other girls to tell them I hadn’t got the job. Then he called me back in and said ‘Next time you have a party, invite us!’
L.C: It sounds like quite a trip…
G.S: It was all so new and exciting! We had these dashing red uniforms and as we went through the terminals everyone stared. The Virgin brand was revolutionising air travel and in those seven years, I don’t remember having a bad day at work. I didn’t have a degree, but I decided to apply for the roles that stated a degree was required and ended up working for Virgin’s promo team. Richard [Branson] gives his teams the autonomy to make changes… that’s probably where my desire for entrepreneurism came from.
L.C: You founded your private jet company ‘ConnectJets’ in 2009, slap-bang in the middle of the recession. How was that?
G.S: People thought I was quite mad when I founded it, with my own seed capital, during one of the worst times in aviation history; but it presented opportunities. We were there to solve problems that had come about because of the downturn. With marketing budgets retracting and customers selling off their aircraft, I would go in and offer solutions. Two years later we’d turned over £4m with zero debt.
L.C: Aviation has been predominately a male industry. In the UK, just five per cent of airline pilots are female, and the proportion of female captains is below two per cent…
G.S: My aim is to see more and more women take these key roles. It’s still a tiny percentage in what’s becoming a big market and we need to build a diverse and equally-accessible industry. Airbus is very keen on recruiting women right now, but we need to have more women flying, engineering, on the ramp, brokering, and in all different aspects of aviation, including sales and management. These are fundamental to survival in the industry.
L.C: In the wake of easyJet’s Amy Johnson Flying Initiative (a campaign to help boost the number of commercial female airline pilots, aiming for twenty percent of new-intake pilots being female by 2020), what needs to happen to inspire more women into the sphere?
G.S: We need to hold up role models like Kirsty Moore -the first female Red Arrows pilot, and Jo Salter -Britain’s first female fast jet pilot, as examples to young women. My own role model, Amelia Earhart, was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and she inspired me on so many levels. As an industry we do have to take responsibility to try and bring these role models out to the front, so we can really get a gender balance. Going forward, we need to make young people today much more aware of what is available when making their career choices.
L.C: Business faces a year of unknowns with Brexit and a continuing volatile and uncertain political and economic landscape. What are the specific challenges in aviation?
G.S: Brexit is an unknown for most of us. I am quietly optimistic that new opportunities will arise but only if we, as an industry, position ourselves and plan ahead for best and worst case scenarios. We must continue to fight to save our local airfields and airports – there are currently twenty up for closure. These airfields are fundamental to us as a nation and never more so than post Brexit. In order to encourage corporations and manufacturers to invest in the UK we must be able to provide a robust transport network, which will serve all sectors efficiently. Large corporations and manufacturers need to transport their executives with expediency and simplicity and that’s what private aviation does best.
L.C: What travel trends are you seeing among your customers?
G.S: Wellness continues to grow exponentially – there is an increase in UHNW wanting to visit spas all over the world. And there’s also a growing demand for experiential and transformative travel, the path less trodden. Last year, we saw an increase in trips the from southern tip of South Africa to the Antarctic – they are completely bespoke, but there is a price to them, and the transformational element of these journeys is extremely important. For example, customers going through very challenging times have found heading to the Antarctic, very therapeutic, as the expanse of openness allows their mind to become uncluttered and free. Our customers can live in a very stress filled environment, with all their thinking channelled into their business, but moving into a different arena can change their mindset and thinking – it’s powerful.
L.C: What advice would you pass on to business leaders and entrepreneurs?
G.S:Be resilient. If you’re not, you’ll be continually disappointed. And cut the emotion out of decision-making, otherwise you will just get walked over. As entrepreneurs most of us will experience the vortex of failure and the flight of success. Both can be fleeting and therefore you have to learn to accept that both will come and go, it is how you handle both that you and others will ultimately judge you on. There was a great sign at Frieze Art Fair this year in London, it read ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on!’ It sums up one of my favourite quotes from Churchill ‘ success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is courage to continue that counts.’