Rising to the Heathrow challenge

Published: 18 Apr 2017

As the head of American Airlines’ operation at the London hub, Olympia Colasante knows how difficult the job is, but a passion for aviation ensures it is not just coffee and kerosene that keep her captivated.

Have you always been interested in aviation?

Aviation first caught my attention when I was barely a teenager and my parents took me on my first flight. As I stepped into the terminal I was in awe of how striking everybody looked in their uniforms, and immediately felt the unique energy that I now know is only felt at an airport. At checkin halls around the world there is the same feeling of excitement and anticipation – I feel it every morning when I start work.

Tell us about your career to date

I started my aviation career 30 years ago in my native Canada, working for Wardair, First Air and Canadian Airlines, before joining US Airways as a supervisor in Ottawa in 1990. I held a number of positions within the company including running US Airways Shuttle in New York’s LaGuardia airport, Boston’s Logan International airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National airport. I became part of the American Airlines family following the merger with US Airways in December 2013, the largest airline merger to date. Before my move to London in mid-2016 I managed American’s operation in more than 30 airports throughout the Caribbean.

What does your current role entail?

In my role as managing director of American’s London Heathrow airport operation, I oversee a team of almost 600 and manage our 20 daily flights bound to the USA. Heathrow is our biggest operation outside of the Americas – ensuring all aspects of our operation come together and work cohesively to produce a punctual and quality experience for our customers is a big and rewarding responsibility. I have worked in many different international airports during my career, but Heathrow is a cut above the rest; the stakes are higher, the customer base is discerning and every second counts!

What are American Airlines’ biggest challenges at Heathrow?

London is the busiest city in the world by air passenger traffic – the competition is fierce and passenger expectations are higher than elsewhere, but American is out to impress. We are investing over $3 billion into all aspects of the customer experience, both in the air and on the ground. This includes taking delivery of one new aircraft every five days, installing lie-flat, aisle accessible seats and wi-fi on international services, introducing new uniforms, partnering with celebrity chefs in our premium cabins and upgrading our lounges around the world, including our newly re-opened arrivals lounge at Heathrow Terminal 3.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Our industry is the result of a diverse group of people working together with one common goal: on-time departures and satisfied customers. I don’t think any other sector encompasses the range of backgrounds, talents and specialties of aviation and I hear a new story almost every day. I like to hear what attracted my peers to the industry and why they enjoy it so much; it’s not just the coffee and kerosene that keeps us captivated! I am also extremely proud to work alongside several other strong female leaders around the world here at American, now more than 42% of all management roles are female, which is just fantastic.

The least?

The aviation industry by its very definition is “24/7” and with American’s operation being truly global, leaving my responsibilities at work until the following morning is not always possible.

What do you do to relax?

Heathrow is a busy place to be throughout the week, so in my free time I like to wind down by visiting a spa and doing a spot of shopping. London is a world city in every sense of the word, like nowhere else I have lived previously, and I am very fortunate to call it home. This year I plan to explore more of the UK in my free time and my colleagues here are full of recommendations!

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