In the fast-paced world of aviation, where challenges soar as high as the planes themselves, Mrs. Saba Gebremedhin Kassaye emerges as a shining example of remarkable success. With her unwavering determination and exceptional leadership skills, she has ascended to become a trailblazer in the predominantly male-dominated industry as the Manager for Ethiopian Airlines in multiple European countries, including Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Northern Macedonia, Ukraine, and Poland. Her journey is one marked by breaking gender norms and shattering glass ceilings, inspiring countless individuals along the way.
From humble beginnings to a meteoric rise within the aviation industry, Saba shares her extraordinary experiences and invaluable insights as a woman in a leadership role. She embodies resilience and the spirit of forging a path where few have trod before. As a vital link between Europe and Africa, Ethiopian Airlines holds a cherished place in the hearts of travellers, and Saba unveils the airline’s unwavering commitment to providing exceptional hospitality and embracing cultural inclusivity. In this exclusive interview, we delve into the challenges she has faced, the triumphs she has achieved, and the lofty aspirations that both define her personal journey and shape the future of Ethiopian Airlines.
FAB: You are the manager for Ethiopian Airlines in Austria and Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Northern Macedonia, Ukraine, Poland, and some other European countries. Let’s talk about your journey to becoming the manager of Ethiopian Airlines in all these regions.
Saba G. Kassaye: Our company has a remarkable recruitment process that targets exceptional students from universities. At the time, I had recently completed my bachelor’s degree and had embarked on my master’s degree. Ethiopian Airlines recruited high-achieving students with impressive GPAs from various universities, and I was among the more than seven hundred participants who took part in the rigorous examination and interview process. The competition was fierce, as there were only fourteen available positions.
Despite my focus on pursuing a master’s degree in social psychology, I recognised this opportunity as a chance to make a meaningful contribution to my country through service. With that in mind, I made the decision to postpone my studies and join the airline as a marketing officer at the head office. This marked the beginning of my journey with Ethiopian Airlines.
Over the course of the past years, I have had the privilege of contributing to and managing various departments within the airline, including operations, marketing, and sales. The aviation industry presents challenges and intricacies that are significantly different from what we learn within the confines of a university. To bridge this gap, we underwent intensive training programmes and participated in on-the-job learning experiences that provided us with a comprehensive understanding of the airline’s operations. These initiatives paved the way for our career progression and ensured that we were well-prepared to navigate the complexities of the industry.
The combination of hands-on experience, continuous learning, and the unwavering coaching of the management has been instrumental in my professional growth and success within the company. I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given and remain committed to contributing to the ongoing success. Be the First to Experience the Exquisite Spring/Summer Issue of e-fab; Join the Fab community now!
FAB: What unique challenges and opportunities do you face as a woman in this leadership role, and how has Ethiopian Airlines created an environment where women are encouraged to pursue their career path?
Saba G. Kassaye: Our “nothing is impossible,” encapsulates the indomitable spirit that drives me as an African woman. I firmly believe that with determination, dedication, faith, and a resolute mindset, we can overcome any obstacles in our path. When I arrived in Vienna, I encountered an immediate challenge—the onset of COVID-19 lockdown and winter, which drastically altered the working environment. Unlike Ethiopia, where restrictions were minimal, most people in Vienna were working remotely from home. This presented a unique situation that demanded flexibility, adaptation, and innovative thinking, given the limited opportunities for personal interaction.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought immense challenges for the aviation and tourism industries. As a management team, we had to navigate these turbulent times by exploring alternative avenues for revenue, such as focusing on cargo transportation, repatriation flights, and ancillary services. By diversifying our operations and capitalising on new opportunities, we managed to overcome the adverse impact on our business.
While the work itself remained rewarding and fulfilling, the circumstances surrounding it posed their own set of challenges.
Regardless of the challenges that arose, my commitment to achieving my goals and contributing to the airline’s success remained unwavering. I understood that the hurdles I faced were not directly related to the nature of my job but were rather external factors beyond my control. Nevertheless, I persevered, leveraging my skills, determination, and collaborative spirit to overcome these challenges and make a positive impact.
As an African woman in the aviation industry, I am a testament to the power of resilience and determination. I believe that regardless of gender, with the right mindset and unwavering dedication, we can overcome any adversity and achieve greatness. The challenges I encountered during that time served as catalysts for growth, pushing me to become more adaptable, resourceful, and innovative in my approach.
FAB: Ethiopian Airlines is the bridge builder between Europe and Africa. Can you tell us some of the ways that the airline achieves this goal right now?
Saba G. Kassaye: Ethiopian Airlines, now in its seventy-seventh year, has navigated through numerous challenges, emerging stronger and more resilient. Our enduring success can be attributed to our strong organisational culture, effective management practises, and the unwavering dedication and resilience of our staff, including the visionary management team. Despite the inherent complexities of the aviation industry, we have managed to maintain profitability even during the pandemic.
Rather than passively waiting for a miracle to happen when COVID struck, we proactively tackled the challenges head-on. We developed strategic plans and diversified our operations to adapt to the new circumstances. Our focus extended to various areas such as catering, the maintenance and repair shops (the largest in Africa), the aviation academy, airport expansion, hotels, and cargo services.
The periods of both COVID and Ebola outbreaks tested our resilience, but we rose to the occasion by swiftly adapting and making the necessary adjustments to ensure our sustained success.
FAB: For someone who has not boarded an aeroplane before, can you mention some of the unique aspects of the Ethiopian culture that are reflected in the hospitality offered on board the Ethiopian Airlines flights?
Saba G. Kassaye: Ethiopian Airlines, renowned for its customer-centric approach and boasting a rich history of 77 years, upholds the core principle of respect for its guests. In our culture, the value we place on respect extends deeply, reflecting the hospitality we offer to those who enter our doors. Just as one would generously offer their bed and share their last meal with a visitor in their home, we embrace this same spirit of respect and extend it to our esteemed passengers.
Our cabin crew embodies this cultural ethos, treating each passenger as if they were cherished guests in their own homes. They go above and beyond to ensure that every individual’s journey is not just comfortable, but also memorable. Similar to how you would spare no effort in making your guests feel at ease in your house, our crew goes the extra mile to create a welcoming and enjoyable experience onboard. But beyond the tangible aspects of our service, what truly distinguishes us is the genuine warmth and sincerity of our team. From the moment you step onboard, you will be greeted with heartfelt smiles and warm welcomes. We understand that these small gestures can create lasting memories and leave a positive imprint on your travel experience with us.
One of the highlights of our service is our “Cloud Nine” business class, where we offer a unique combination of first-class and business-class amenities. Passengers can expect luxurious comfort, personalised service, and a range of premium features that elevate their travel experience.
For flights departing from Addis Ababa, we take pride in showcasing the rich flavours of Ethiopian cuisine. Traditional Ethiopian meals, as well as a selection of exotic international dishes, are carefully crafted and served to satisfy the diverse palates of our passengers. We believe that offering an authentic taste of Ethiopia sets us apart, and it is through these culinary delights that we infuse African-flavoured hospitality into our service.
FAB: What advice do you have for women who want to pursue leadership roles in male-dominated industries like the aviation sector?
Saba G. Kassaye: Commitment, dedication, and having a positive and determined mindset are crucial to being successful not only in the aviation sector but in every aspect of life. Having faith, believing in oneself, and recognising the potential for achievement can propel Women to great heights even when facing doubts and societal barriers. It is particularly important for women to break away from the mindset that suggests they are incapable of achieving certain things. Embracing the “yes, I can” mentality empowers us to defy societal expectations and stereotypes. A woman can be a devoted wife, a nurturing mother, a loving daughter, and a capable leader simultaneously. The potential and capacity for success are not limited by gender. Recognising and celebrating the achievements of women in various fields will inspire future generations to dream big and pursue their aspirations with unwavering confidence.
Setting clear goals and visualising where one envisions themselves in the future is an important step towards success. By working tirelessly towards those goals and continuously seeking knowledge and self-improvement, we can strive for excellence in our chosen endeavours.
To embark on a path towards success, it is also crucial to set clear goals and have a vision of where one envisions themselves in the future. By doing so, they can establish a roadmap for their journey and stay focused on their objectives. However, setting goals alone is not sufficient; it is equally important to work tirelessly towards those goals and consistently seek knowledge and self-improvement. By continuously expanding one’s skills and expertise, one can strive for excellence in their chosen endeavours.
FAB: As someone who has moved from an ordinary recruit to the position of a regional manager, what motivates and inspires you to continue pushing for greater achievements?
Saba G. Kassaye: My journey is fueled by the determination to inspire and support children and women who face barriers to education. I draw immense motivation from witnessing the challenges that women face in accessing education and pursuing their goals. It is my aspiration to be a shining example for them, showcasing that despite not attending an Ivy League school in the US, I was able to receive my education from a public school in Ethiopia. However, my educational journey does not end there, that was just the beginning. I firmly believe in the power of continuous learning, and I actively seek out courses and opportunities to enhance my knowledge and skills.
I am grateful for the support of my family, which played a pivotal role in enabling me to pursue education and personal growth. Yet, I am acutely aware that many children around the world, including in Africa, lack similar opportunities. It is up to us, as Africans, to unite and work collaboratively to make our continent great. We cannot afford to overlook the importance of empowering women in this endeavour. By harnessing the collective strength of both men and women, we can create transformative change that uplifts communities and shapes a brighter future.
Every event and circumstance that unfolds in my surroundings fuels my motivation to do more and effect meaningful change. I am driven by a deep desire to witness a future where every child is given equal opportunities to progress and thrive. It is my ultimate goal to see our continent flourish and become a better place for all its inhabitants.
FAB: Looking into the future, what do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges facing the aviation industry, and how is Ethiopian Airlines preparing to face them?
Saba G. Kassaye: Looking into the future, there are both significant opportunities and challenges on the horizon for the aviation industry. Ethiopian Airlines recognises these dynamics and is actively preparing to face them head-on. Ethiopian takes immense pride in being the continent’s leading airline, and since our establishment in 1945, we have built a legacy of efficiency and excellence in Africa.
One of the most significant opportunities lies in the growing demand for air travel. As global economies continue to develop, more people are seeking convenient and efficient means of transportation. This presents an opportunity for airlines to expand their operations, increase their customer base, and explore new markets. Ethiopian Airlines is well-positioned to capitalise on this opportunity due to its established reputation, extensive route network, and commitment to excellence.
Another opportunity lies in the advancement of technology and digitalization within the aviation industry. Technological innovations have the potential to enhance safety, improve operational efficiency, and enhance the passenger experience. Ethiopian Airlines understands the importance of staying at the forefront of these advancements and has consistently invested in state-of-the-art aircraft, systems, and infrastructure. By embracing emerging technologies and leveraging digital solutions, the airline aims to streamline its operations and offer an enhanced travel experience for its passengers.
However, alongside these opportunities, the aviation industry also faces several challenges. One of the most prominent challenges is the ever-changing regulatory landscape and compliance requirements. Airlines must navigate complex regulations and ensure adherence to international safety and security standards. Ethiopian Airlines recognises the importance of strict compliance and has made significant investments in training, infrastructure, and partnerships to ensure it operates in accordance with global best practises.
Another challenge is the volatile nature of fuel prices. Fluctuating fuel costs can significantly impact an airline’s profitability. To mitigate this challenge, Ethiopian Airlines employs fuel-efficient aircraft, implements effective fuel management strategies, and explores alternative fuel options. By prioritising sustainability and fuel efficiency, the airline aims to reduce its operational costs and minimise its environmental footprint.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to the aviation industry. Ethiopian Airlines, like many other airlines, has faced disruptions in operations, reduced passenger demand, and financial implications. However, the airline has responded proactively by implementing rigorous health and safety measures, adjusting its routes and schedules, and diversifying its revenue streams. Additionally, Ethiopian Airlines has capitalised on its cargo operations, transporting essential goods and medical supplies to support global pandemic response efforts.
I believe that the future is unpredictable, but our readiness extends to every aspect of our operations. This forward-thinking approach has protected us from potential bankruptcy and positioned us for sustained success.
As a manager at Ethiopian Airlines, my responsibilities extend beyond promoting our airline; they also involve promoting the entire continent. We believe that by showcasing the capabilities and potential of African airlines, we can enhance the reputation and standard of aviation across the continent.
Fun Zone: #FabFastFive
- FAB: If you could only listen to one song for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Saba: If Jesus says yes, nobody can say no.
- FAB: What’s your favourite makeup brand?
- FAB: If a tourist came to Ethiopia and you were their tour guide, where is the first place you would take them?
Saba: I would take them to my city, Addis Ababa, and invite them to a traditional restaurant where they can see our different traditional dances, try traditional food, which is called injera, organic coffee, and our famous honey wine. As there are numerous incredible places to explore, I would also take them to the historical marvel of Lalibela, which has remarkable rock-hewn churches, and the ancient city of Axum, which offers a fascinating glimpse into Ethiopia’s rich past and is filled with captivating landmarks and artefacts.
- FAB: What is your go-to casual wear combination in Spring?
Saba: a colourful dress with a coat or a suit.
- FAB: If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?