Rachelle Ornan-Stone is the regional director of cabin experience and revenue analysis at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Her background in psychology and neuroscience is helping her reinvent air travel for passengers.
Tell us about your qualification and career so far
If you had asked a few years ago, I would have leaned heavily on my education, but now I would say my best qualifications are my experience with airlines, customers, industry experts, and learning how to engage with engineers. My career in aviation has taken me from payload engineering to sales and marketing. Before this, I pursued graduate degrees in industrial design and experimental psychology while working for NASA, Lockheed Martin, and as an independent product designer.
Have you always been interested in aviation?
Yes. While joining the space industry was my first choice, the Boeing opportunity arose and I grabbed it since the space industry in the late 2000s was in relative decline. The more I learned about aviation, the more it appealed. Since everyone flies it’s a topic people enjoy discussing so you can relate to most people with what you do for a living. Being involved in interiors makes it that much more poignant—everyone has an opinion about x, y, or z airline, seats, the boarding experience, in-flight entertainment, food. I was looking for a complex field, which combined my skills, talents and passions.
How does your neuroscience and psychology background help?
Neuroscience and human factors psychology offer a fundamental understanding of how the world works…. and the world is people-based, right? People buy things from people they like and for emotional reasons. I find it relatively natural to dissect the aircraft interior because even if I’m not an expert on each system, I lean on my understanding of human behaviour. But the best education I had was waiting tables and selling Girl Scout cookies door to door, there is no better way to learn to read others and deal with rejection.
An inability to say no tests Ornan-Stone’s time-management skills
Tell us about your typical day?
Some days it feels like I’m a mutant circus ring leader, juggler, data analyst, researcher, anthropologist, advertising executive and public speaker. Here is what might be a busy day: spend a few hours updating a presentation on twin- and single-aisle airplane trends for two airline customers; give an airline a walk-through of our Customer Experience Center – Boeing’s showroom of aircraft interiors – or on the flightline; answer interview questions for an industry magazine; meet a product marketing team to discuss new customer-facing materials for the Boeing 777X; compile talking points for next month’s UN space conference at which I have been asked to speak; analyse the best way to configure an airline interior; talk to a research lab on academic work that could be translated into aircraft interiors as a product differentiator; run to the airport and catch a plane to support an interiors sales campaign. It’s pretty varied. On occasion, I get a day when I can play catch up.
What are the most exciting projects you have worked on?
The most exciting, and frustrating, projects are those which have the biggest impact on the product and flying public, efforts for which there are no roadmaps to success, and where I’ve had to secure buy-in and leverage from nay-sayers.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
They relate to time management. If you are innately curious and have a hard time saying no because everything is fascinating, you’ll understand how it can be a problem. Another challenge is to figure out how to navigate a rules and regulation-based industry with “big ideas” and to maintain the stamina and excitement to inspire yourself and others to continually push the envelope.
What do you enjoy most?
I love meeting people from other cultures. I love the challenges related to designing for a limited volume of space. And most of all, I love the idea that we are inherently all the same, wherever we come from and that we can even mingle because of air travel – it’s such a poetic, and impactful thought if we can realise the huge opportunity.
We are only scratching the surface of psychology’s intersection with the airplane and how related devices, services, technology, and connectivity will impact humanity and reinvent the travel experience and change the world for the better. The airplane can literally be the vehicle of change.
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