Having steered the multi-faceted and complex communication of AVIA Solutions Group, a recognized international avia market player, Vilma Vaitiekunaite has now dived into private jet travelling. “It definitely has an auspicious future – in the Baltics and all over the globe. All indicators show that clearly. Heading the Group’s communications, I felt I was at the very top of my field. And while I did love my job and enjoyed it tremendously, I still found myself thinking about change. My thoughts would often drift to the idea of the commerce field especially, since I spent some years in this sector and was a pro at it. That’s why I had a feeling that right now I’d be able to do a lot more in commerce and make an impact,” V. Vaitiekunaite, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Skyllence, AVIA Solution Group’s affiliate specializing in the planning and provision of corporate, private, and group air charter flights in the Baltics and worldwide, told The Baltic Times Magazine.
It came as a surprise that you left the company’s communications department and became Avia Solutions Group subsidiary’s Skyllence, which offers charter and private flights, CEO. Why did you agree to this change? How has your start in the new position been?
It’s a funny thing really, that others believe communications specialists will stay in their field forever, but the reality is different. No matter how interesting and beloved the job is, it’s also a hellishly difficult one and in the long run, drains you emotionally a lot. Looking at it through a more pragmatic lens, I was at the very top of my field. And while I did love my job and enjoyed it tremendously, I still found myself thinking about change. My thoughts would often drift to the idea of the commerce field especially, since I spent some years in this sector and was a pro at it. That’s why I had a feeling that right now I’d be able to do a lot more in commerce and make an impact.
I knew that I couldn’t see myself anywhere else but aviation – I’m very attached to Avia Solutions Group (laughs). Because of the massive range of businesses and new projects coming in, it’s easy to find your calling in such an environment, so I didn’t consider any other options. Interestingly, the type of job I do at Skyllence is very close to that of communications. We offer charter and private flights not only for businesses, but also for governmental and NGO sectors, the entertainment, music and film industries, events or private celebrations – a whole spectrum. We can make a flight happen with a single phone call and with no hassle at all: whenever and wherever needed.
While we are a startup, stepping into the market wasn’t difficult. The team of professionals – long-time aviation industry experts – can offer our clients fully tailored flight solutions, and the large network of Avia Solutions Group partners and the respected name in the industry helps to expand the offers and, also, expand the network further.
Stepping into the new role,I dived right into work! Despite the fact that aviation isn’t a new field for me, there are still a number of business nuances in this area, which I simply had to learn quickly. It was a little bit of a ‘back to school’ moment, but I felt the urge to learn something new again. I’m not afraid to brag that I’m studying the very exciting business of aviation!
Does the fact that Lithuania’s accessibility by regular flights is still quite limited also increase Skyllence's prospects? And how would you describe the level of aviation services for business in the Baltic countries, especially in Lithuania?
The more limited the accessibility is, the better Skyllence’s prospects are, that is true. And this is not limited to the Baltics only.
The accessibility issues of all three Baltic countries are varied, but none of them has a properly solved approach. Looking from the business perspective, the situation in Lithuania is probably the worst of the three: dominated by low-cost carriers, and a major lack of direct connections to Europe’s business centres and aviation hubs. The investment attractiveness of the country suffers from this, and investments simply don’t come. Not to mention the inconvenience of travelling from Lithuania in order to reach clients and partners. There’s no need to even exaggerate, it takes a whole day of travel, and it’s only Europe that I’m talking about. This means that the one-day business trip becomes a three-day task – that is too long and very ineffective. Wasted time is the most painful aspect of this, and no no-rush philosophy will help here. Some things simply need to be done quickly and conveniently.
I've heard that charter aviation volumes increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
No other advertisement and marketing campaigns were able to achieve such popularity for business aviation as the pandemic, unfortunately. Compared to 2020, in 2021 about a third of private jet requests came from new customers who had never flown private before – not the regular customers. It was a fallback solution to compensate for the lack of commercial aviation. Additionally, business aviation was and is a solution for speed, when faced with constant slowdowns and delays caused by the pandemic. In sectors where time is money, some have chosen business aviation as their prime mode of transportation.
It should also be noted that passengers who have experienced the benefits of flying private, more often than not find it difficult to go back to flying commercial – whether it’s business or pleasure. In Europe, private aviation traffic grew by 20%, and similarly, in the U.S. it increased by almost 40% after the health crisis. This is the highest rate since the 2008 economic crisis.
Coming back in 2022, naturally, commercial aviation saw a small dip in traffic. However, the trends tend to continue growing and business aviation doesn’t lose its attractiveness. Of course, it is important to highlight that commercial airlines also make considerable efforts to attract premium travelers.
Who are your potential clients?
Our clients are everywhere and anyone can become one: from private individuals, high-ranking business and government officers, sport, music, entertainment and film industry representatives, to workers who need to be taken from Point A to Point B.
We are operating across the globe, however we’re the only leading company, providing private and charter flight services in Lithuania. We have representative offices in Poland, England, France, Switzerland, Singapore, and South Africa.
You have an amazing life story. Having come from Kazlu Ruda, a sleepy border town in southwestern Lithuania, you end up working for Gediminas Ziemelis’ Avia Solutions Group, a big-name business. Did Mr. Gediminas hire you himself? Do you remember your first meeting? What type of person did he seem to be?
It was much earlier, before the establishment of Avia Solutions Group. I came to Vilnius to study, and here, things happened on their own: the first job search, and other activities. I started working at Gediminas Ziemelis’ company “Zvilgsnis iš arciau” and later at “Zemes vystymo fondas”. The recruitment process was carried out by HR professionals, so the only thing I knew at that time was that Gediminas was the CEO.
Our first meeting was, if I recall correctly, during a weekly meeting, which was the same as any other and rather forgettable – just another work thing. On the other hand, Gediminas left an impression of a meticulous and concrete person. Perhaps the only thing that surprised me was that Gediminas was a very young CEO and a business owner. At that time, it still seemed that businesses were run by people at least in their 40s-50s.
The aviation part of the business began in 2017 when I asked for Gediminas’ help with one of the social projects I was running. Unfortunately, the social project did not come to fruition, but after a discussion, he invited me to join one of the then-developing aviation startups. This was when my flight in aviation and my career at Avia Solutions Group took off.
You spent more than four years as Avia Solutions Group’s Head of Communications. What was that experience like?
Truly incredible! The variety of business lines under one roof, wide geography, a dynamic atmosphere as well as the communications’ bouquet of both wins and challenges, though setting a crazy pace, have also given great professional pleasure. The pandemic period only added to the experience – all possible and, it seems, impossible situations appeared in our day-to-day. I remember one time we had to write informational messages about repatriation flights, company acquisitions, and how to distract yourself when stuck at home or collections of recipes for the company’s internal newsletter.
I suppose you had to manage not only massive streams of information, but also streaks of unfriendly information, deliberately tarnishing the reputation of Avia Solutions Group. Is that true?
We all live in a massive and a constantly-moving stream of information, every day. The number of content channels and content units is much larger than it is physically possible to consume or to cover. And we are all forced to create our own routine and system on how we consume content, what is relevant or vitally important to us, and what is not.
This might be a bit of a watered-down version, but the same methods apply to information streams at work, and you can create some sort of order in that chaos. The information itself isn’t good or bad, there’s simply a lot of it and a large variety of it. However, if we’re talking about fans and haters, it’s probably important to highlight that a company of such size in such a small market has difficulty staying in the background.
On the other hand, it’s very convenient to keep bringing up well-known brands, no matter if it’s in a positive or negative light, and can be a part of an overarching communications strategy for some. This is the daily life of a number of brand names. For example, there are separate airline-specific hate groups, which have hundreds of thousands of members. These are massive communities, which are held together by hatred for a single brand, and their discussions circle around why they should hate the company, and find happiness in their failures. But there are also fan groups on the other side of the spectrum – and the key question is, which one of the two groups is more important or, at least, larger. When you know the answer to that, then you can start thinking about what to do with it and how.
Can you recall a couple of SOS cases, where you probably had to wake up in the middle of the night or end vacation in order to manage the situation?
It was March 13, 2020 the beginning of the pandemic outbreak, and I was on my way to an airport to meet a group of Lithuanians who were flown home after being stuck in Italy. If you remember, it was the last working day in Lithuania before the quarantine was imposed. The fear and uncertainty was in all of us, and we didn’t know what exactly we should prepare for. We were afraid of unwanted increased attention on the passengers, we felt that we could not leave them alone to talk with the press if journalists arrived at the airport. However, it turned out to be interesting only for the social media bubble. We made sure that everyone arrived safely and left for home. While I had driven all night, when I came back to bed I could sleep peacefully.
The funny thing is, most of the times I’d jump out of bed was not because of an emergency, but because of couriers, who wouldn’t be able to find where to deliver packages. My phone number was publicly available under any of the subsidiaries’ names, which made it a couple of seconds’ task to call. I won’t lie, each time the lingering anger wouldn’t let me fall asleep for at least another hour.
While I never had to end my vacation early for an emergency, there were cases were I simply hadn’t had one due to the copious amount of work and lack of resources to be able to relax properly. I’d say during most, if not all, of my vacations I worked. I have this habit where I feel uneasy if I don’t read the news in the morning or go through my emails next to a cup of coffee. It’s easier for me to pick up my phone and solve a problem in two minutes than postpone it for two weeks and, in turn, leave one or two people in the unknown or unintentionally create a problem. Situations like these give me anxiety, that is why I’m not a fan of completely turning off my work phone.
And while lying under a palm tree, millions of thoughts are still running in my head – with me I bring back from the vacation a list of new ideas or solutions to problems.
There are few women in aviation, and the industry is extremely male-dominated. Is the situation changing? You change it the same way, don't you?
I’d say that aviation has been too little female-focused from the very beginning, however this was influenced by the limitation of women’s rights at that time. Yet, it wasn’t only aviation that was affected by this, any other industry was heavily male-dominated.
To be completely honest, this hasn’t changed dramatically very much – most industries that are women-dominated are with the lowest wages, and that has barely changed. Let’s look at the structure of the Boards of well-know aviation companies, for example. Only recently Boeing appointed four women to their Board, Airbus has four as well. However, looking at this critically, it’s just the bare minimum. Though a very small step is needed – only the principal decision that we need to have women on the Board. Everything else is purely technical. It is that abyss of determination that one would like to wish to overcome.
The situation is changing slowly, in aviation as well. The world has finally realised that women are that hidden resource, which can bring a lot of talent into any industry. Various incentive programmes that are promoting different aviation careers have been in place for years, but they are still primarily focused on engineering, mechanics or piloting. I still haven’t seen a single campaign that would say “come to business school and become the next CEO or Member of the Board of an airline”.
The path to a leadership position for women is much longer and filled with a myriad of obstacles. Something that could be a 5-year plan becomes a life’s achievement, and it shouldn’t be like this. Every woman that comes to the aviation industry – regardless of her position – is changing it. When women, who help and support other women, join, any industry see changes faster.
Of course, there have always been women, who were unsupportive of other women – starting with royalty, and those who opposed women’s rights, finishing with modern women, who want to be the only ones at the decision-making table. That’s not healthy: not only can they not properly realise themselves, they also remain in a minority which has to accept established rules without the ability to create them. Needless to say, such women don’t help change the gender imbalance.
I try to support and help women wherever I can – mentoring young women, if my advice will help them avoid at least half of the mistakes and their careers will be smoother and faster because of it. Everyone will win: they, the company and the industry. I think that this is the path which each of us should follow, so that our daughters can work in healthier working environments.
Time and time again you have publicly supported women suffering from violence, vulnerable minorities in society, even the LGBTQ+ community. Why is this important to you?
When I was studying at the university, one of the courses I had was Human Rights – that’s where it all began. I soon joined the female reproductive rights activists, and the spectrum broadened, including other human rights issues like those of the LGBTQ+ community, refugees and more. I continued to participate in a number of different organisations, would establish some on my own or would take up leadership positions.
I would say that the youth activism – from public protests to writing petition texts and joining Boards of organisations, which began as a way of expression and a hobby, had a very big impact on my career overall. I have to thank the non-governmental sector for the fact that I was noticed in other areas. There, I learned important lessons and met wonderful colleagues who later on became partners or clients. On the other hand, social changes happen fastest when businesses see the benefits they bring. And I'm not talking about the financial line in the budget sheets. I mean company culture and policies – how important it is for the company that all its employees feel good, safe and welcome there.
Engagement, loyalty and other indicators important to businesses are improving. This is a win-win situation. Meanwhile, when evaluating companies, the non-governmental sector always checks whether they have people who openly support certain values and how many of them there are. In some sense, my NGO colleagues aren’t ashamed of me – I support human rights initiatives, I often initiate them myself or join existing ones, as I did when I was part of the NGO community. On the other hand, NGO has become an integral part of my identity for 20+ years.
Where do you see Skyllence and yourself in 10 years’ time?
Why such a long period? (grins) In three years’ time, Skyllence has to be a Top-3 charter broker in Europe (smiles). Where will I be in 10 years? I’ll probably be developing another crazy project in aviation.
Summer has come. Will it be a busy time for you? Will you find time for vacation?
Summer is the peak season for us – Europe is traveling and for us it means the same thing as for the commercial sector during Christmastime. I will spend a couple of weekends with my family at the Lithuanian seaside – we have this tradition to come together there. While we seem to always have some absurd moments, it turns into some of the funniest stories for the whole year. I best recharge during summer in Lithuania, so no need for a bigger vacation for me.