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Travel Leaders: Kathryn O’Brien, GM Australia, Air New Zealand

This is the story of a leader who thrives in the face of adversity and embraces constant change. Which is handy because she works in aviation. It's the story of a woman who remains committed to fostering connection and shaping the future of air travel. And it’s the story of a woman who is equal parts inspired and inspiring. This is the story of Kathryn O’Brien.

This is the story of a leader who thrives in the face of adversity and embraces constant change. Which is handy because she works in aviation. It’s the story of a woman who remains committed to fostering connection and shaping the future of air travel. And it’s the story of a woman who is equal parts inspired and inspiring. This is the story of Kathryn O’Brien.

What qualities do you believe are essential for a successful leader in the aviation industry? 

I truly believe that good leadership transcends any one industry. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have worked and learnt from some brave and dynamic leaders. And it is my sincerest hope that I can pass on some of the skills and the lessons I have learnt from those leaders. In saying that, it is certainly true that there are a unique set of pressures and challenges in aviation due to its fast pace and constant change. We’ve seen this through the rapid restart of travel over the past 12+ months. Not to mention the ongoing pressures relating to constrained demand, resource shortages, supply chain issues and the competitor landscape, just to name a few. The importance of being flexible and courageous in the face of adversity as well as developing and nurturing those abilities in your team is something that drives me every day. 

As a female leader in the aviation industry, you serve as an inspiration for many aspiring professionals. Have you encountered any specific obstacles or biases in your career journey? 

I’ve been fortunate to have been led by inspiring, highly regarded, and supportive leaders – both male and female – from very early on in my career. There have certainly been occasions where I’ve encountered some level of prejudice or assumption based on gender. But it’s never influenced my self-belief, or conviction in my actions, responsibilities, or position as a leader. 

My advice to women aspiring to leadership positions would be to never be afraid to speak up. Ask questions, learn from your mistakes (and we all make them!), and never give up. Resilience is an extremely important attribute and it is something we’ve all had to build into our personal arsenal over the last few years. A mentor can also be a wonderful guide in how to navigate career challenges. You’re never too old to get a new one and I hope that I can fill that role for people in the future. 

What role does Air New Zealand play in fostering strong economic and cultural connections between Australia and New Zealand? 

Australia is New Zealand’s largest visitor market and its closest neighbour. So it’s obviously an incredibly important market for Air New Zealand. Air New Zealand operates direct services to nine key destinations in Australia. People travelling through Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart, Adelaide, Perth, Sunshine Coast, Cairns and the Gold Coast are connected to key New Zealand cities and tourist spots including Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.  

Kiwis and Aussies have a close connection. We believe Air New Zealand has an important role to play in ensuring connectivity between the two countries. Air New Zealand offers more services across the Tasman than any other airline. We’re committed to providing our Australian customers with plenty of options to get across the ditch. And offering our exceptional Kiwi service and onboard experience.  

Aviation is an industry that constantly evolves and faces unique challenges. How do you navigate that ever-changing landscape? And what strategies have you implemented to ensure Air New Zealand remains competitive and relevant in today’s market?  

I think most people would agree that Air New Zealand has a reputation for being innovative and at the forefront of product development amongst international airlines. We’ve been working on implementing digital solutions that make the travel experience seamless and stress-free for our customers. We’relooking at things like in-app baggage tracking and the re-platforming of our customer app to make it even more user-friendly. 

And of course, our upcoming Skynest is an exciting innovation we’re looking forward to introducing to customers when our new aircraft arrives in 2024. After five years and more than 170,000 hours of research and design, we’ve created a product that will revolutionise the inflight experience for Economy passengers. 

We’re always listening to our customers to understand how we can create solutions that improve their experience onboard.  

Travel experiences can often leave a profound impact on individuals. Is there a particular moment or encounter that stands out as particularly meaningful or memorable to you? 

Good question! It would be a tough choice between a safari trip through Zimbabwe & Botswana or a driving adventure through Cuba. Both were incredibly memorable for very different reasons but also had some striking similarities. Viewing a vast array of African wildlife in their natural environment was breathtaking and a little unnerving at times versus the hustle and bustle of Havana, where it had all the charm of feeling like time had stood still in the 1950s. What made them similar, however, was the value they placed upon tourism to their countries – all the people I encountered embraced international visitors and wanted nothing more than to share their culture, and their rich history and extend a very warm welcome to all! 

How do you maintain a sense of well-being and ensure you have a healthy work-life integration?

There’s no doubt about it – balancing a sense of well-being with work pressures and family commitments can be a juggle! Throw in regular travel both domestically and internationally and things get really interesting. 

I’ve always been someone who places importance upon exercise and physical health, as it  helps me to think, sleep and feel better. I’ve also recently undertaken a great leadership course with  PlayCoLab in Auckland and the wonderful facilitators, Sandy Burgham and Jenny Devine, have reminded me of the wonderful aspects of journalling. It’s a great avenue to explore what’s on your mind, particularly if something is troubling you, and understand more clearly how it affects you. It’s a great tool to gain clarity of thought and action! 

How do you envision Air New Zealand’s role in shaping that future off air travel?

It really is such an amazing time be to involved in aviation. There has effectively been a total reset of air travel over the last few years, firstly with COVID and now specifically with the advancements in aircraft which reduce fuel load and allow ultra-long haul flights. The opportunities these developments provide all airlines are really exciting. I believe that Air New Zealand is uniquely placed to be at the forefront of these advancements due to our geographical location and innovative team. When it comes to things like sustainability, we are really thinking about the future. We are underway with our Mission Next Gen Aircraft programme. This looks at how we can transition to more sustainable aircraft, like hydrogen or battery hybrid options. Decarbonising aviation is not easy and we’ve got a lot of work to do in this space. But this is a step in the right direction.

To read more about Air New Zealand, head to their website: www.airnewzealand.com.au.