A Sky-High Career: A Q&A With Emirates Exec Catherine Baird
I fly a lot, and when I do, I am always observing and learning just how much work it takes not only to run a flight, but to run an airline. In fact, my alternative dream career would probably be in aviation.
On a recent flight from New York to Dubai on the Emirates A380, I was inspired about flying again—not because I was on the biggest plane in the world, but because the crew managed such a huge plane so seamlessly that it made long haul flying fun. While in Dubai, I became curious about what it would be like to work at the world's best airline, as well as how a company can keep such a quality flying experience while continuously growing its brand (the airline has a fleet expansion plan of over 200 aircraft and is set to double its crew numbers within the next decade).
I recently had the chance to catch up with Catherine Baird, Senior Vice President of Cabin Crew at Emirates, and learned more about just that. As a 25-year veteran of the aviation industry and the head of a team totaling more than 17,000 cabin crew members, Catherine has an insider’s look into starting—and advancing—an in-flight career.
How did your career with Emirates get started?
I commenced my career in education and, as most Australians do, I took time out and backpacked around the world. This adventure gave me a global perspective and the opportunity to experience different cultures, to meet interesting people, and to learn a lot about myself and others.
I worked in a myriad of roles and companies, including flying the world as a cabin crew member based out of London. I moved back to Australia to join the start-up team for [Australian airline] Ansett International. This was a pivotal opportunity for me, as I learned so much about airline operations, product, and customer, employee, and brand engagement. Most recently, I was based in Germany working with Star Alliance. I moved to Bahrain in the Middle East to work with Gulf Air before joining Emirates in Dubai in 2005.
Taking opportunities to move laterally across roles and companies has given me the experience and breadth to support me in my current position here at Emirates, where I oversee the learning and development of our cabin crew.
Emirates has been named the World’s Best Airline for 2013. What are some aspects of company culture at Emirates that make it unique?
Emirates is truly cosmopolitan. We have over 160 nationalities across the company. We celebrate our cultural diversity by being curious to learn, to understand people from different backgrounds, and to share the richness of our own individual cultures. We see ourselves as the bridge between people and places, between cultures and ideas. When you travel with us, it feels like it is the whole world getting on together in one place and you are invited to be part of it—it’s an inspiring new world full of possibilities!
And as an Emirates employee, you get to work with people from all over the world, so that not only do you grow professionally in your role, but you grow as a person.
What are some of the biggest career lessons you’ve learned during your time at Emirates?
When I joined Emirates in 2005, we had almost 6,000 people in our cabin crew. Today, we are about to reach 17,500. Our growth as an airline and a business has been phenomenal, and our ability to not only achieve the training demand but to efficiently manage this growth is due to the wonderful spirit and tenacity of our people.
So, for me, the greatest lesson I have taken away over recent years is to look beyond the functional roles or titles of people in the business, to unearth hidden talents and true potential, and to let them shine.
Emirates is rapidly expanding its team of cabin crew and staff. What makes a resume stand out for you? What skills and qualities do you look for in an Emirates staff member?
At Emirates, we talk about an inflight experience rather than simply inflight service. If you look at our incredible route network—flying single-stop from Dubai to over 130 cities across the globe—our customers can be in our care in the air for sometimes 16 hours or longer. So, we are looking for people who are authentic and who genuinely care for people. Our foundation is the richness and warmth of the Arabic culture and we are guided by the spirit of “Ahlan Wa Sahlan,” which means “a very warm welcome.”
But beyond that, our cabin crew members come from over 137 nationalities and all have fascinating stories and diverse backgrounds—we have nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, musicians, hospitality professionals, and ex-crew members from other airlines, just to name a few!
What advice do you have for professionals who want to work for Emirates or similar top airlines?
Find your passion, and be true to yourself. Don’t be afraid to move across industries—to look for lateral moves (not just promotions) across your company to gain breadth and to develop networks. Seek out people who you can learn from—and remember that they can be at any level or any role. Learning never stops! And my final word of advice is to be humble. It opens possibilities.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author