Finding space for a second career

Published: 13 Nov 2017

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Jane Johnston divides her time between two roles, one as head of corporate communications at NATS, the air traffic control service covering Britain’s crowded skies, and the other as chair of the Aviation Club.

What sparked your interest in aviation?

My father was an air traffic controller and Master of the Guild for the UK Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers, so I grew up with aviation in the house and lots of interesting people coming and going. I was probably the only nine-year-old ever to do a school project on the finer points of aircraft stacking! I can still remember tracing the diagrams out of my dad’s manual.

Tell us about your career so far

 I trained as a journalist on the Surrey Mirror, where I started a Gatwick page – so the aviation vein has always run deep. I went on to do contract work with national newspapers. When I needed a more secure job to support a mortgage, I looked to go in-house and only wanted to work in aviation – I could only ever speak for an industry I really believe in. I got a job at British Airways and stayed for over 15 years. I ran BA’s Gatwick press office for a while, and spent seven years as their lobbyist including work on NATS’ privatisation, so it seems very fitting that I should now be working for NATS. I joined 12 years ago and love the challenge of raising awareness of the importance of airspace – without which the rest of the industry simply wouldn’t function.

What have been the highlights?

Wow – so many. I feel incredibly lucky to have worked in this industry during probably the most exciting time in its evolution – the deregulation of European aviation in the 1990s that spawned the low-cost revolution; flying on Concorde; visiting amazing places before the tour operators found them. I found my niche in the lobbying role, where a fascination with politics combined with my love of aviation really set the compass for my career since then. Workwise, I’m probably proudest of the work I did with Baroness O’Cathain who was on the BA board, saving the airline £2 million a year by securing an amendment in the Lords to an Immigration Bill that threatened to turn check-in agents into immigration officers.

What are your responsibilities at NATS?

I’m head of corporate affairs, which is part of the wider communications department. I have a small but fantastic team which does the really serious communications – so it’s political communications, Single European Sky work, press office, crisis response and community relations.

What challenges do you face?

Airspace is critical national infrastructure, but because it’s “invisible” it tends to get forgotten. UK airspace was designed half a century ago and urgently needs to be modernised to make best use of today’s fast and environmentally efficient aircraft, and to support the government’s growth forecasts. Traffic is growing so fast we are starting to run out of airspace, especially in the south-east of England. That brings very particular challenges with communities overflown by more aircraft (even if they’re quieter), and communities that haven’t had overflights up till now.

What is the Aviation Club and what is your role there?

It was founded over 25 years ago as a networking forum for professionals from across the industry, and we now have more than 500 members. We hold eight lunches a year at the Institute of Directors, and attract the very highest calibre speakers, all of them chief executives of world-leading aviation companies. I chair an 18-strong committee that sets direction and invites the speakers, and while I’ve been in post we’ve refreshed the brand, introduced online booking and become much more social media-active.

What do you enjoy about this role?

Getting to know a great set of people on the committee, who provide plenty of challenge and consistently innovative ideas. And the opportunity to meet and learn from some of the industry’s greatest leaders. What do you enjoy the least? Not having as much time as I’d like to give to it – it is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and I’d like to think I have made a real difference.

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