The Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) team sat down with Rachel James, Lead Industrial Designer, Safran Seats, 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.
How long have you worked in the aviation industry?
“I have worked within the aviation industry for over 21 years.”
How did you get into the industry?
“My interest in design started from childhood and traveling with my family. For me, one of the most exciting parts of the experience was the flight. From the perfectly portioned in-flight meals to the small but highly multi-functional spaces, I found myself fascinated by the level of design and filled many notepads with sketches and designs before I even considered a career in it.
“The aviation industry needs to address its carbon footprint.”
I always knew I wanted to combine my creativity with practicality and my passion for design was forged from an early age. After achieving a master’s degree in Industrial design, I began my career at a small Engineering Company that designed and engineered small galleys and bar units.
My main role was to design and create sketches of social zones and bar units/galleys that would support the CMM documents and presentations for the customers. I moved specifically into industrial design at the Camberley based Heath Tecna where I supported the design of front row monuments and social zones. My career progressed from there.”
What is it about working in the aviation industry that appeals to you?
“I have always found the initial stage of a project to be the most exciting. Being provided an empty space envelope within an aircraft and having the ability to create a unique design, tailored to a customer brief within this space, brings me joy.
“”I would push the agenda on greener air travel and make flights more sustainable.”
Capturing cultural tastes, selecting trim & finish, and implementing complementary styling shapes within the furniture allows me to express my creativity. Getting validation directly from the customer that my design hits the mark, is hugely rewarding.”
As a woman, how do you find working in such a male-dominated industry?
“I have always worked and designed within a male-dominated industry. I was one of only four women at my University studying for a degree in Industrial Design. Traditionally, the ratio of women to men has always been extremely low in my career surroundings.
When I started working within the aviation industry, being a minority certainly had challenges; however, as my knowledge of the industry grew, so did my confidence. I thoroughly enjoy working alongside all departments and guiding engineers and customers with potential routes forward.
The industry has evolved and I am confident that my opinion and my skills as a woman within my industry are highly valued amongst my peers.”
Have you encountered any gender discrimination in your career?
“I have been in the industry for a while and times have certainly changed. Twenty years ago, the industry had even fewer women in it and I was treated somewhat differently, even if the treatment wasn’t intentional.
Over the years I have seen positive steps and witnessed more women entering the industry. This has really helped change the culture in a very positive way. Being in a company like Safran, they drive equality and equal treatment, and this is continuously supported with ongoing training to keep the equality values running through the teams.”
As a female senior leader, why do you think it’s important for companies to address the gender gap?
“Any form of discrimination is fundamentally wrong. When looking to bring in a new employee all candidates should be judged purely on their ability to do the job. Gender should have no influence.”
What do you believe has been the key to your success?
“I believe that it has been a combination of characteristics and skills that have led me to where I am within my career today. It is about being open and adaptable. I am able to generate ideas and concepts quickly. I communicate well, which helps to translate concepts and ideas.
I am also an approachable person and believe it is best to address issues early, in open discussion. Whether it’s a project plan or a team issue, talking and sharing ideas as a team is key to driving projects forward.”
What characteristics do you believe women need to survive in the aviation industry?
“Out of all the attributes I have seen I believe the most successful women have a high level of confidence and composure. These are the women I aspire to be like.”
In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle to women succeeding in the workplace?
“Lack of self-belief.“
What would you say has been your career highlight to date?
“I would say the biggest career highlight was the first time my designs fully captured the customer’s imagination and were selected.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“The best piece of advice I was given was at college when I was told, “You can do whatever you want in life, as long as you set your mind to it”. It made me feel driven and motivated to make my mark within an industry dominated by high-achieving male counterparts.”
What advice would you give to female professionals interested in a career in aviation?
“I would say be brave and go for it. From a designer’s perspective, there is no other industry like it. Your designs could end up flying in the sky.”
What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the aviation industry?
“The aviation industry needs to address its carbon footprint. While the industry has the important role of connecting the world, we cannot lose sight of our responsibility to the environment. We all need to take greater accountability for the products we create and implement ways to make them more sustainable.
“Getting validation directly from the customer that my design hits the mark, is hugely rewarding.”
I understand OEM’s, Airbus, Boeing, Safran and competitor seat manufacturers are committed to supporting this topic. It is a major change that we all must consider implementing to help build a better future.”
What do you believe has been the biggest development in air travel over the past 25 years?
“I would say the advancement in technology. Touch screen and high-definition monitors within the suites have created a far more enjoyable space to be in when travelling, making it a far more interactive experience for the passenger. Wireless charging and other intuitive technologies encourage passengers to relax and lose themselves in an entertainment-driven, immersive experience.”
If you could change one thing in the aviation industry, what would it be?
“I would push the agenda on greener air travel, prioritise the implementation of emerging technologies that help reduce our carbon footprint, and make flights more sustainable.”
Who has been your biggest advocate/mentor in the workplace and why?
“I recently took part in a mentoring scheme that assisted females to develop themselves further. I was mentored for about six months by a highly positioned female professional. I hugely benefited from this scheme and I would recommend a mentoring scheme to anyone wanting to better themselves and their career.
“The industry has evolved and I am confident that my opinion and my skills as a woman within my industry are highly valued amongst my peers.”
It really helped me break down how I work as an individual, where my strengths lie, and what I needed to do to improve. I would say that this female professional really helped me understand my career and myself and she has been my biggest mentor to date.”
About Rachel James
Rachel James is currently working as the Lead Industrial Designer at Safran Seats GB. Leading the SGB Advanced Concept Team. Rachel was born in Swansea, Wales where she graduated from Swansea’s Metropolitan University of Wales with a Degree (BSc) and Masters (MSc) within Industrial Design.
Rachel recently received the title of Safran Expert in Passenger and Crew Experience.
Away from the office, you can find Rachel enjoying time with her children and relaxing with a good book.