The Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) team sat down with Karyn McAlphin, Design Strategist at SEKISUI KYDEX, as part of our Women in the Aviation series.
This series of interviews aims to shine a spotlight on notable women in the industry and the diverse career opportunities in the sector.
With more than 30 years’ experience in the aviation sector and strong family ties to the sector, Karyn brings passion and a unique understanding of the passenger experience to her role. Read on to find out how she carved her own career path and her views on being a woman in the business.
Karyn, how long have you worked in the aviation industry?
“I’ve worked in the aviation industry since April 1989, when I joined USAir as Manager – Advertising & Sales Promotion.”
How did you get into the industry?
“It was a total fluke but looking back I can see clear ties to how I ended up and stayed in aviation.
My father was a pilot in WWII and later had his own Mooney, the fastest single-engine aircraft at the time, so I grew up with a love for flying as well as “the need for speed”. He owned his own contracting business and the plane was ostensibly for checking job sites, but I always suspected it was more for fun than anything else.
I can remember entire conversations between my parents regarding how he should paint his plane. Fast forward 25 years to my overseeing the new US Airways aircraft livery getting painted on our first A330-300 at Airbus in Toulouse! My dad also liked to take things apart and put them back together, so another of his hobbies was rebuilding wrecked sports cars. I honestly think being exposed to this early on helped me relate to aviation engineers and mechanics later in my career.
“It’s imperative for companies to encourage young women to go into aviation engineering.”
My father died of a heart attack when I was a senior in high school, so I scrapped my plans to study fashion illustration at Syracuse University to stay closer to my mom. Instead, I went to UCLA and got my bachelor’s degree in Painting/Sculpture/Graphic Arts. At that time, art majors at UCLA had to choose between studying Design or Fine Arts, so I chose the latter because I was good at drawing.
After graduation, I pursued a second BA in Photographic Illustration from Brooks Institute of Photography and ended up getting a job processing film, making title slides and driving a delivery truck before I progressed to shooting and producing multi-image presentations for major clients.
I eventually moved to Washington DC after interviewing for an opening at USAir. They needed someone in the Advertising & Sales Promotion department with a production background to oversee A/V for their marketing conferences and other needs. Although they really liked my qualifications, they needed to post the job internally at the airline, as well as with the DOT, before doing so externally.
The position sounded like my dream job – tying photography, A/V and flying all together, so I literally spent the next three months learning everything I could about USAir and the aviation industry. Later, when I got the job with the airline, I took great pleasure in thinking how much my dad would have loved hearing about everything I did for a living.”
What is it about working in the aviation industry that appeals to you?
“When I started in the marketing department, I was responsible for USAir’s multi-media presentations, among other things. I spent a fair amount of time setting up air-to-air shoots and directing photographers on the ground.
There’s nothing more exciting than pulling zero-Gs in a completely empty plane or running around on the ramp smelling jet fuel while trying to get the required shots as jets and ground service equipment move all around you. What can I say? I’m an airline junkie — once it gets in your blood, it’s impossible to get out!
One of the things I liked best about working for an airline was that every day was different. There was always something new and exciting to work on, and the tangible aspects of my job were really rewarding. My mother and I would fly stand-by together frequently, and I revelled in pointing out all the things on the plane that I had worked on.
Later, while overseeing product development for US Airways, I realised how much I enjoyed “thinking like the customer” and creating solutions to improve the overall experience.”
As a woman, how do you find working in such a male-dominated industry?
“For me, it was never really an issue, because I worked in the marketing department for 25 years. I used to joke that the advertising & promotions department was the “pink ghetto” of the airline industry because so many women worked there.
However, when I began working on aircraft interiors in 1996, I dealt primarily with male engineering teams – both at the airline and with our seat suppliers. Initially, my Tech Ops colleagues thought many of my ideas were crazy, but they came to respect me as they began to understand why certain things were really important for our customers.
Naturally, there were times when I needed to be pragmatic about what would work for our maintenance team, and being collaborative certainly helped gain my colleagues’ support. I really relied upon the engineering team and could not have achieved what I did without their help.”
As a female senior leader, why do you think it’s important for companies to address the gender gap?
“Although there are many females in purchasing supporting Tech Ops teams, there are still relatively few female engineers. I believe it’s imperative for companies to encourage young women to go into aviation engineering for several reasons.
Research has shown that women approach things differently and a more collaborative and productive method might prove useful. In addition, with more women travelling for business, it’s extremely valuable to bring a better understanding of 50% of the flying population to the table. I can’t begin to list how many times I’ve experienced something somewhere that didn’t work for me and thought “this must have been designed by a man!” At AIX last year, I met a young female engineer from one of the major airframe manufacturers who was absolutely brimming with ideas. It was truly exciting to talk to her and realise that she was the future of aviation.”
What do you believe has been the key to your success?
“I think the key to my success has been my ability to understand the innate wants and needs of our customers and convey them to my colleagues in such a way that they buy in to the importance of certain products and services. The teams I’ve participated in and led have required a great deal of collaboration and diplomacy to come up with solutions that ultimately benefit everyone.”
What characteristics do you believe women need to survive in the aviation industry?
“Because aviation is such a male-dominated industry, I think – unfortunately – women still must work harder to be taken seriously. I’m a firm believer in paying your dues, based on my own experiences. Recent research indicates that millennials will not be able to achieve the same quality of life enjoyed by their parents which is distressing, so having a good work ethic and passion for what you do are important characteristics to sustain you through challenging times.
Developing a thick skin and harnessing the ability to tenaciously – but professionally – pursue what you know is right, even when the going gets tough, is also extremely valuable.”
What would you say has been your career highlight to date?
“There are several that come to mind, including overseeing the entire corporate rebranding of USAir to US Airways; introducing the first buy onboard programme in the domestic U.S. and leading a complete uniform redesign following the merger between America West and US Airways.
“There’s nothing more exciting than pulling zero-Gs in a completely empty plane.”
For the sake of this interview, however, I’ll focus on one: being the launch customer for the reverse herringbone Cirrus seat, which was declared an industry game-changer by the press upon its introduction.”
What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the aviation industry?
“With the increased attention on climate change, I think it’s imperative that the industry addresses CO2 emissions. Creating an engine capable of running on biofuel to lower emissions is a worthy cause. Boom, the new supersonic aircraft manufacturer, is exploring biofuels and how to make the world dramatically more accessible.
“I grew up with a love for flying.”
It will be interesting to see if we can eventually lower the carbon footprint by getting to the destination faster, using more earthfriendly fuel.”
What do you believe has been the biggest development in air travel over the past 25 years?
“I think the biggest development in air travel over the past 25 years has been the evolution of lie-flat seats. Passengers can now arrive at their destination feeling more refreshed and relaxed than ever before. I find it fascinating that some carriers are now even putting lie-flat seats on narrow-body, transcon aircraft.”
If you could change one thing in the aviation industry, what would it be?
“I would reverse 9-11. That attack drastically changed the entire industry and my life personally. US Airways was headquartered at Washington National Airport, which was shut down for three months afterwards. Fighter planes patrolled the air space and when flights resumed, air marshals flew in First Class on flights in and out of the U.S. capital. Passengers were not allowed out of their seats 30 minutes prior to landing and TSA officials enforced constantly changing rules to foil would-be terrorists.
US Airways was not able to sustain business under such dire conditions and had to declare bankruptcy. We worked hard to emerge from bankruptcy but came out too soon and went back under a second time.
Ultimately, all of the major U.S. carriers declared bankruptcy because they simply could not continue to make enough money. After two failed attempts to merge with United Airlines, US Airways merged with America West which billed itself as a low cost carrier.
With vastly different corporate cultures, the new company had plenty of issues to address, but succeeded based on its unique new business model, ultimately merging again to create the new American Airlines which had just emerged from bankruptcy.
Just about everyone who worked in the industry following 9/11 had some horror story to tell, and at the airline we quickly learned who our friends were. A dynamic, vital industry was crippled and brought to its knees, forever affecting the way business passengers flew.”
Who has been your biggest advocate/mentor in the workplace and why?
“When US Airways and America West merged, I elected to relocate from the Washington, DC area to Phoenix, AZ, where America West was based. I loved my job and didn’t want to leave the airline. However, the America West management team was calling the shots and my previous director was skilfully forced out by my new director.
He was relatively young with just a few years of airline experience, but it was clear that he had the backing of my new VP. I made a conscious decision to support him by sharing everything I knew about the way US Airways had operated.
He appreciated my efforts to help make him successful in the organisation and over time we became really good friends. Thanks to his support, I worked on many of my most exciting projects while reporting to him. He grew into his role over the years and had some of the best people management skills of anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
About Karyn McAlphin
Karyn has over 18 years of experience in aircraft interior product development and is an accomplished brand management strategist with extensive marketing experience in the airline industry, specifically in cabin design and branding for new aircraft specifications and retrofits. She holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees from UCLA in Fine Arts and from Brooks Institute in Photographic Illustration.