Aviation has taught me many big lessons

Read Time:13 Minute

What drew me to aviation when I was very young was the open sky, the feeling of connecting with the Almighty and the freedom of being close to nature. These are the things which attracted me when I wanted to be a pilot. I realised that the skies are one part of the world which don’t have physical boundaries in the rigid sense. We do have corridors of airspace and traffic management guidelines but there is no physical boundary.
IQ, EQ and PSQ
When we talk about management, it is about taking important decisions and using people’s skill sets correctly. Most people focus on IQ. They look if someone is from IIM, IIT or such branded institutions. I agree that students of these institutions are brilliant and they have secured their seats in a highly competitive environment. For leadership, it is not essential that you have to be branded in a certain way. What is important is how you use that IQ and put it into action.
The emotional quotient or EQ becomes very important for leaders to connect to their people and to make sure that they deliver whatever they intend to deliver in the organisations they lead. Scoring high in compassion, honesty and integrity is their real life exam. So we have to blend IQ, EQ and a word that I have coined–PSQ, which is the Pure Soul Quotient. When you combine IQ, a basic intellect, logical thinking and reasoning capability to get a productive result and match it with an emotional connection with your colleagues in your team, everyone achieves more—and you do it with purity and good intention, looking at everyone around you; not as man or woman, or somebody high or low, but just as your equal, and, connecting with them as pure souls, you will be able to derive maximum results.
International rules and regulations
Aviation has taught me many big lessons. It is the only industry that is so internationally focussed. The rules and regulations that we follow are common throughout the world. All other industries are focussed within countries and meeting the regulations of the countries in which they operate. In aviation and aerospace, we consistently follow the international norms and practices. Because when we fly from A to B, we cross countries and oceans that don’t really belong to one specific nation.
We have the ICAO—International Civil Aviation Organization—which has come out with various annexes. We had 18 annexes for many years. Recently, the 19th one on safety management system has come and these are followed in aviation across the globe. Thus aviation gives a bonding to all the countries which no other industry can match. Though shipping comes very close, aviation is newer than shipping and it is faster as a mode. Shipping has its own place as certain kinds of cargo can be handled only through ships.
When business goals blend with CSR
I’ll give you my example as the CEO of Alliance Air, which is a subsidiary of Air India. It runs its own ATR 72 type of aircrafts. It functions with a very different kind of a corporate social responsibility function mixed with business goals. I was in the key seat where I was given the task of separation from Air India, making sure that all the platforms are separated.

It is good to be fearful at times to a limited extent and take all precautions. But it is my belief that excessive fear draws diseases and troubles.

I took great pride in being the CEO of Alliance Air, simply because it was close to my heart as a subject. Through our airways, the remotest person in a small village could be delivered vaccines when he/she needed them during the Covid times. When we can ensure that our flights can connect to the smallest two tier and three tier cities and help them to get what they require, then the business goals are met along with social responsibility goals. It is like a mind-body-soul connection. Profit should not be our only vision. We have to look at the bigger picture. I used to say that Alliance Air is Alliance of Hearts.
In a flight, we have 200 to 300 people sitting together in a confined space—you can do magic if you like, interacting with pure souls, but typically, it doesn’t happen anymore. In fact, the world has changed so much that what was a natural way of communication between humans is looked now with a big question mark. They ask, “Why are you talking to me?” People say that they feel lonely in a flight. Our mindset has changed. We don’t trust anyone around us, we don’t think they are our fellow human beings and we stop thinking with the universal consciousness.
The Wuhan operation
During Covid first wave, I was Chief of Flight Safety. I was writing the SOPs, trying to put procedures in place so that people are safe. We did the Wuhan operation—the first flight that went into China in 2020 and I had done all the planning for that in such a way that not a single person should catch the contagious disease. We had to be well prepared for any kind of exigency and risk management. We assessed the severity and probability and put risk mitigation procedures in place. We did that successfully for Wuhan and evacuated so many Indians from China. Then we did hundreds of Vande Bharat flights and could rise to the occasion.
In such operations, you would find some people who are willing and happy to be part of them and there will be others who will find every reason not to be part of. You can easily discern that when you talk to people. The other thing which I observed was the fear psychosis. It is good to be fearful at times to a limited extent and take all precautions. But it is my belief that excessive fear draws diseases and troubles.

Drawing on spiritual strength
With a ravaging pandemic, people had lost their inner strength and their ability to cope. I started a group called Universal Prayers Channel. I was the CEO of Alliance Air at that time and, of course, it was not mandatory, but voluntary. It was a multi-faith meditation group without any religious tone but just a spiritual exercise. We started these prayers every morning from 4.30 to 5. We would pick up any prayer, meditate on that and get our inner strength back.
People who were hesitant, weak and who needed a little motivation and strengthening were all changing within a week. It was like a magic happening. Suddenly they were willing to do things which they were not willing to do before. It taught me a big lesson in life and gave me a first-hand experience of how to combine spirituality with leadership functions; how to use your inner spiritual strength to achieve higher productive goals.
Today, we have become so focused on money and position but have lost the big picture. The strengthening from inside helps you to be a good decision maker, for better team management, conflict resolution and in getting everyone to work in a more compatible manner without any arguments, without people pulling down each other. In fact, people who would be fighting earlier requested for meditation. It was fun to see people using simple values and delivering good content.
From India’s first woman pilot to a trainer
In Aviation, I was fortunate to get a full 360-degree experience in my organisation. I started off as a pilot (India’s first woman pilot in Air India in 1988) but God had other plans for me. I had a medical issue so I could not continue with active flying. Instead of sitting and crying, I dusted my clothes and told myself, ‘I have to find something else to do. I’m not going to be a defeatist.’ I had taken a lot of loans to be a pilot. But I was sure that there had to be a higher purpose in this setback and God would show me a new direction.
I went to the US, got my license revalidated there and started all over again in aviation, but in a slightly different direction. I became a trainer.

It is good to be fearful at times to a limited extent and take all precautions. But it is my belief that excessive fear draws diseases and troubles.

I have been training for many years. I was a ground instructor and a fixed-base simulator instructor for the pilots for a long time. After getting my qualifications from the US, I made a second re-entry into Air India as a trainer. I was also into navigation, meteorology, performance management, crew resource management and so on. I loved that journey because I learnt a lot.
If you want to learn something, teach it. This is a golden rule. If you really want to learn something, catch your friend, teach him and you will realise how much you don’t know. A lot of questions will come and you have to read again. Then you gradually evolve.
Tests and more tests
The other thing I love in Aviation is that this is one industry where people are tested and tested and tested. This is the only industry where, every six months till retirement, the pilot has to repeat his ground exams refresher and qualify again. He has to repeat the medical checks and simulator tests because of the safety requirements. Even a surgeon, once he gets his degree, is not going to be tested again. The pilots get used to the pressure of updating themselves, appearing for the exams and always living on tenterhooks. While you see the glamorous side of the pilots walking to the cockpit and coming out, there is a lot that goes on behind the scene.
Since I am from Air India, I can say that flying long-haul operations like the 777 and 747, where we do 14 to 16 hours of flights, can be challenging. We have a bunk for the pilots as they can’t operate for so many hours at a stretch. We have to mitigate the safety risk. We have two pilots who take off and the same two pilots that land. But in the middle, we have two pilots who are the cruise pilots while the others rest. There is a lot of risk mitigation things that we do all along.
Opt for the No-Go zone
After the training requirements, I was fortunate that I started with a role in Quality department. In aviation, we never had a quality department earlier. I got thick volume of quality standards on my table. There were some new standards and international requirements and we had to have a quality management in place. No one was interested in this and I sensed an opportunity. This is another management lesson I have learned. ‘When everybody says no, it is time to jump in.’ People want to do safe things and don’t want to take a risk or dive into new knowledge.
It took me a lot of work to institute the quality management system. I am a certified as a lead auditor. I audit airports and airlines on behalf of international agencies. Audit, like teaching, taught me immensely. If you are a true seeker, you will seek knowledge and not money. That is what has eventually made me a CEO.
When you are in the open-minded zone of a seeker of knowledge, you will acquire more knowledge and you will be able to outshine others. You don’t have to pull them down. I have observed that some people are so insecure about themselves that they are not willing to share their knowledge. If you do not share knowledge and allow the team to come up and replace you, you cannot go to higher levels.
The challenge at the middle
I have also observed in organisations that the biggest block comes from the middle management. Because they are in the middle, they know the frontline issues and also what the top management wants them to do. But, looking for stability and promotions, they prefer to be ‘yes men,’ at the cost of undermining the organisational vision and goals. They are hesitant to communicate the frontline issues to the top and, therefore, the top management may not be aware of the ground realities. They may also miscarry the management’s message to the frontline. I am not saying everyone is like that. There are exceptions and there are many people in middle levels who are very good and deliver excellent results.
To overcome this problem, you have to strategize without offending the middle management. A leader must learn how to engage with them and ensure that they do not misquote the top management and also give real feedback about the front line to the top management, so the decision making at the top happens adequately and appropriately.
Be proactive
As Chief of Flight Safety, the one thing that I realised was that we must drop our ego and our position. It doesn’t matter if you are a CEO—man or woman. You have to go into the hangar, check the parts yourself, go and watch what the cabin crew are doing or sit and interact with the pilots. Interact with frontline workers, have a cup of tea with them, feel the pulse and plug the gaps. If you just sit in an office and think that everything is going to be perfect, you will go wrong. It is very difficult to manage safety in an organization. We have a lot of rules and regulations. Though we make sure that everything is hundred percent safe, once in a while, things can go wrong, because we are all human beings. We have to be prepared for Murphy’s Law: ‘Anything that will go wrong, will go wrong.’ But in safety, we need to be proactive. We introduced a voluntary safety reporting system. If people see a hazard, they should report it. Accident investigation is reactive. We have to focus on hazard reporting for proactive safety management. During the five years I spent as Chief of Flight Safety, I learnt a lot, understood the mindset and about what triggers people to commit mistakes.

Awake for 4 days
I was the emergency response director for almost 15 years. I had the unfortunate experience of handling two accidents. In 30 minutes of knowing about the accident, I reached the emergency command centre. I was awake for four days and nights at a stretch and I was still very fresh. I realised the energy that we are all blessed with. We knew we had a job to do. This is the resilience that we all have. I am nothing special and we have this capability and strength in us. We had to help so many people who were in hospitals. That intention and pure thought about helping others is what prevented us from getting tired. It gives positive energy and vibes. If as a leader you have that, you can automatically spread those vibrations around you and you can develop a good team.
People make loose statements that without corruption and sucking up to people, you can’t rise. I don’t believe it and I am a standing example. I don’t know anyone in the ministry. I know God and I keep doing my job. It is as simple as that. Do your work with devotion and sincerity and keep moving. You will have good times and bad times. Life is a game of snakes and ladders.
Growth in adversity
In Alliance Air, during Covid, we started a new sector and new flights. We started to come out of the red. We started cargo flights. There was a lot of focus on cargo operations during Covid because it was always under-served earlier. The management lesson here is that when everything is down, you can find business opportunities and avenues for growth. We learned hybrid modes of functioning and about how to work from home at lower costs, with our flight planning and other things happening from home and which we would have never dreamt of. We have evolved into a new way of doing things. Thus, every adversity can be an opportunity.

Dr Harpreet A De Singh, ED-HQ, Air India and Former CEO, Alliance Air