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Women in Aviation: The Most Influential Leaders of 2024

From Air France to Japan Airlines to JetBlue, women are taking the helm in the aviation industry

by Ramsey Qubein

March 12, 2024

Illustration: Aleksandar Savić

The time is now. While men have typically dominated the aviation industry, women fuel the operation at every turn. But, where their presence has been least visible has been at the top of the executive team.

For an industry that benefited from the pioneering efforts of women like Amelia Earhart, Harriett Quimby (the first American woman to receive a pilot’s license), and Katharine Wright (sister to her famous brothers Orville and Wilbur and someone who provided significant financial support to their efforts), why aren’t there more women leading airlines?

The good news is that things are changing fast. Several global airlines now have women at the helm. Even the International Air Transport Administration (IATA) is led by Yvonne Makolo, the first female in history to lead the trade organization.

IATA also has its 25by2025 initiative, encouraging airlines to grow female senior leadership positions to at least 25% of the corporate structure by 2025.

Photo: CEO Joanna Geraghty. Courtesy of JetBlue

Over two dozen women are now leading global airlines as CEOs, a significant increase since 2021. These women include Annette Mann of Austrian Airlines, Lynne Embelton at Aer Lingus, Vanessa Hudson of Qantas, Kristin Colvile at the SkyTeam alliance, and the newly appointed CEO at JetBlue, Joanna Geraghty, who is set to become North America’s first woman leading a major carrier.

Let’s delve deeper into the accomplishments of these top female leaders driving aviation to new heights in 2024.

Yvonne Makolo: CEO of Rwandair and IATA Chair

When Makolo left her native Rwanda in 1993 to study geography and environmental sciences in Canada, she had no idea she would become one of the most important women in modern aviation.

After years of working as a software developer and at the World Bank, she now leads Rwandair, Rwanda’s national airline in southern Africa, which is on track to join the Oneworld alliance under the sponsorship of Qatar Airways.

Photo: Yvonne Makolo. Courtesy of IATA

As CEO, she brings over a decade of commercial expertise, having worked in marketing and corporate affairs for the airline. Under her leadership, the airline has built its fleet to 13 aircraft as it awaits a new, modern airport in the capital city of Kigali. She has helped the airline become one of the fastest growing in Africa, and she has emphasized diversity and increased the role of women in the organization.

The International Hospitality Institute included her in its 2022 Global 100 in Hospitality list, highlighting the most influential people in hospitality.

In 2023, she was appointed the first female chair of IATA and the first person from the African continent to do so.

Photo: Yvonne Makolo, CEO RwandAir and Chair, IATA Board of Governors, speaking at the AGM Opening Session. Courtesy of IATA

Her commitment to Africa resulted in IATA developing its “Focus Africa” initiative, which is focused on bringing together African airlines to reduce governmental restrictions and boost collaborations to improve social and economic development on the continent.

In a quote to Travel Weekly regarding women in aviation, Makolo said, “Things are being done, especially with IATA 25by2025, to address that issue. But it has to move faster. And it has to be deliberate by individual airlines to address this problem. It’s not a woman problem. It’s not for women to fix it. It’s for all of us to fix it.”

Anne Rigail: CEO of Air France

The Air France-KLM group is one of the largest airline conglomerates in the world. Rigail began her aviation career with Air Inter in 1991 before taking the helm of customer service at Paris Orly Airport for Air France.

Photo: Anne Rigail. Courtesy of Air France

By 1999, she had risen to a larger role at a busier operation as the director of passenger and baggage connections at the Paris-Charles de Gaulle hub.

Her next roles at the airport were head of customer and baggage products for ground operations and vice president roles for ground operations, inflight services, and customers. She was responsible for developing the Paris-CDG hub operations control center in 2005. She has served as the airline’s first female CEO since 2018.

Rigail is responsible for bringing the airline to #7 (up from #25 in 2019) in the recent Skytrax World’s Best Airline rankings. Under her leadership, she has accelerated the carrier’s fleet renewal plans (a win for more fuel-efficient and eco-friendly operations), repaid the Covid-related support debt in full to the government, and raised awareness of the “feminization” of technical jobs, including pilots.

On International Women’s Day, she hosted the first event in partnership with other organizations like Airbus and the French Army. She held another similar event during the Paris Air Show in 2023.

Photo: Courtesy of Air France-KLM

Under Rigail’s leadership and push for gender equality, she aims to have half of all senior management positions led by women. Speaking to Travel Weekly in 2023, she added, “We are not yet at 50/50 in terms of women in all jobs. But globally at Air France, we have 46% women, 40% in management and we are fighting to increase those numbers.”

Marjan Rintel: CEO of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines

Air France-KLM Group is the only airline grouping with both CEOs led by women.

Rintel’s extensive aviation background began at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, KLM’s main hub. By 1999, she had moved to KLM and worked in various positions, allowing her to learn about the airline from the inside out. She understands the airport infrastructure and how the needs of a global airline fit into the puzzle.

Photo: Marjan Rintel. Courtesy of KLM

She left aviation briefly to lead NS Dutch Railways before returning to KLM as president and CEO. Like her colleague, she has also spearheaded efforts to modernize the fleet with younger, more fuel-efficient aircraft and promote the use of sustainable aviation fuel.

A priority for her has been having female candidates on every shortlist for management positions. As an IATA board member, she carries this thinking to the global stage by influencing other airlines to follow suit.

Through workshops, mentoring programs, and educational sessions, she and her team are working to draw interest from the female leaders of tomorrow.

Photo: Courtesy of KLM

Speaking to Flight Global, Rintel notes, “We need to be proactive. So, it’s hiring more outside…if someone is leaving, I always ask to see the list and that a woman should be included. If you have more people in the room from a diverse background, you have, in the end, better decision-making.”

Mitsuko Tottori: President of Japan Airlines

Previously serving as a flight attendant for the airline since 1985 and working her way through the corporate structure, Tottori takes the help of Japan Airlines this year, a rare role for women in Japan.

The Asian nation wants a third of its leadership roles at major companies to be female-led by the decade’s end.

Photo: TOTTORI Mitsuko. Courtesy of JAL

She understands the operation’s ins and outs more than leaders who have not worked on the front lines. She served in various roles, including as director of cabin crew for the airline.

Tottori sees her promotion to the top as a stepping stone for other women in aviation to achieve similar milestones. When they see her achievements are based on merit and experience, they might be encouraged to do the same.

Much progress has been made to bring women to the aviation sector, but as KLM’s Rintel notes, “we are just starting.”