The leadership problem in aviation

Posted: 20 February 2023 | | No comments yet

A recent loss of skilled and experienced aviation leaders within the industry drives cyclic workforce challenges, getting ahead of the curve is critical – but how? Mark Wilson, Head of Airfield at Melbourne Airport, explains more for International Airport Review.

Leaking leadership talent

Like many industries, the airport environment is complex and challenging. The airport system is kept operating in part due to several large teams, and the performance of those teams determines the airport’s success. These teams cannot operate well without good leadership, and it is now more evident than ever that good leadership must start early to set up the industry well.[1]

In airport operational roles, we often see technically strong team members being promoted to leadership roles without first understanding how to be good leaders for their teams and the business. Consequently, this can drive poor staff retention, inefficient teams, disengagement within teams, and loss of talent in the airport industry[2]. The above consequences result in two main negative outcomes: reduced safety and increased costs, neither of which are desirable for an airport.

Any reduction in safety is an issue due to the critical nature that safety plays in airport operational roles. We know that the consequence of unsafe activities can mean the loss of multiple lives, and further research from Basdola[3] identified that effective leadership styles for aviation safety are seldom practised. This adds strength to the argument as to why it is crucial to get this correct early on.

Regarding the negative cost outcome indicated earlier, it’s estimated that the cost of staff turnover to an organisation is equal to the cost of the departing employee’s salary[4]. Other research[5] determined that an organisation will receive a productivity drag of between 5% and 10% due to having ineffective, undeveloped or poor leadership practices within the organisation. Coupled with this, experts estimate that poor engagement driven by poor leadership costs businesses in the United States of America $550 billion in lost productivity every year [6]. Clearly, this is an issue that warrants the effort required to get ahead of the problem. 

How can we help to solve the problem?

The above shares context about the importance of getting ahead of the problem. To do this, there is value in focusing on how to build leadership talent within young people leaders in airport operational roles. This approach begins to solve two problems; the leadership retention problem and the problem with worker retention where staff leave due to a lack of positive leadership practised above them.

If, as an industry, we look at the two key questions below, we can position ourselves to be on the right track in response to solving the problem by focusing on building young talent.

Question 1: What skills and experiences are most critical for young people leaders in airport operational roles?

Question 2: What does international best practice say about implementing a plan for the development of young people leaders in airport operational roles?

To provide the industry with a head start, research carried out as part of my recent studies provided responses to these two key questions. These help inform building a framework within organisations that captures critical development opportunities for young people leaders in airport operational roles. This framework can stay with the developing leader throughout their development journey, rather than a piecemeal one-size-fits-all approach to development. The findings of this study are summarised below for the reader.

What skills and experiences are most critical for young people leaders in airport operational roles?

The study identified that there are 15 critical skills that these young leaders need to possess in today’s airport operational environment. Alongside this, the research signalled that there are 11 critical experiences required to aid the development of young people leaders in airport operational roles.

In terms of importance, the industry experts then ranked the criticality of these skills and experiences through a survey, the outcomes of which are detailed below.

In summary, the top five skills which should be prioritised were found to be communication, decision-making, problem-solving, people management and critical thinking skills. With respect to experiences, the research suggests a focus on prioritising the following: mentoring relationships; 360-degree feedback; team building; self-reflective practice; and leadership style assessments.

How to implement international best practice for developing young people leaders in airport operational roles

One finding that became clear through the research was that an organisation’s framework should be in place before the identified talent becomes a people leader. This allows for the fostering and growth of skills to be developed, and it best places the young people leader for success right from the outset of their leadership journey. 

Equally important to develop within the framework is the need to provide an avenue for commitment from both the young airport operational people leader and the support role that is entrusted to develop that leader. It is recommended that an avenue to provide commitment is included in the framework. Doing this enables the framework to succeed. Without a two-way commitment, the development programme will stall or may result in negative outcomes particularly in respect to the mentoring experiences[7].

Getting the commitment question right enables the mentoring relationship to allow for goal setting, to provide clarity of roles, and to strengthen the ability to collaborate. Research suggests that the impact of this enables the young people leader to achieve more promotions, have increased job satisfaction, greater recognition, along with improved well-being. [8]

To provide two-way commitment (to the framework and not just the mentoring relationship), it is considered important to identify an executive sponsor for the young people leader from within the business. Building in space for this enables an opportunity to provide support, while also building the company goals, values and mission into the framework which creates an aligned view of success as the young people leader develops their career and growth within the company. Equally, this adds value to the business and ensures that the next generation of people leaders have behaviours already endorsed by the business. [9]

Understanding key criteria to build into frameworks supports the talent development plans within individual organisations. Equally, looking at this across all of the industry and focusing on this enables an aviation restart that is supported by positive leadership from young leaders who subsequently support engagement within their front-line teams – ultimately resulting in better retention, safer operations and improved efficiencies.

Mark wilsonMark Wilson is an aviation professional working at Melbourne Airport as the Head of Airfield after relocating from Auckland, New Zealand early in 2022. Along with 14 years of airport operational experience gained through Auckland Airport and Melbourne Airport Mark has held a PPL license for fixed-wing aircraft, has gained a Bachelor of Aviation Management through Massey University, and has recently completed an Executive MBA with first class honours through Massey University.

While studying the Executive MBA, Mark completed research on developing a framework that supports young airport operational people leaders as they advance through their careers. Recognising the importance of not only technical competencies, but equally leadership qualities early on in an individuals’ careers is an area that Mark is passionate about. Injecting opportunities and support that helps build leadership within the industry drives Mark’s motivations.


[1] Levi, D. (2017). Group dynamics for teams (5th ed.). Sage.

[2] Schyns, B., & Schilling, J. (2013). How bad are the effects of bad leaders? A meta-analysis of destructive leadership and its outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 24(1), 138-158.

[3]  Bastola, D. P. (2020). The relationship between leadership styles and aviation safety: A study of the aviation industry. Journal of Air Transport Studies, 11(1), 71-102.

[4] Duda, J., & Žůrková, L. (2013). Costs of employee turnover. Acta Universitatis Agriculturae

et Silviculturae Mendelianae Brunensis, 61(7), 2071-2075.

[5] Nielsen, R. K., Henriksen, T. D., & Børgesen, K. (2018). Management/leadership: Profession, professional, professionalization. In Professionalizing Leadership (pp. 219-234). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

[6] Bazigos, M., & Caruso, E. (2016). Why frontline workers are disengaged. McKinsey

[7] Hansford, B., & Ehrich, L. C. (2006). The principalship: How significant is mentoring? Journal of Educational Administration.

[8] Fagenson, E. A. (1989). The mentor advantage: Perceived career/job experiences of protégés versus non‐protégés. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 10(4), 309-320.

[9] Day, D. V., Halpin, S. M. (2001). Leadership development: A review of industry best practices.

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