Written by Angela Stevenson, Bachelor of Communication (Media Studies) student at Swinburne University of Technology

In summary

  • Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Australia Pacific Airport Corporation. Lyell Strambi presented Swinburne’s annual Aviation Leadership Lecture
  • He has extensive experience spanning four decades in the aviation sector both in Australia and overseas

What do you do when the current ‘dip’ in the air passenger growth graph of your airport looks like an abyss when compared to what now looks like the barely registered potholes of past major crises?

To find out, Swinburne’s Department of Aviation, in conjunction with the Smart Cities Research Institute, asked Lyell Strambi, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Australia Pacific Airport Corporation (APAC), to present Swinburne’s annual Aviation Leadership Lecture on 19 October. 

Mr Strambi has kept his faith in the industry, with a career spanning forty years – working at Ansett, Virgin Atlantic, and Qantas – to be appointed CEO and MD of APAC in 2015.

Responsible for operations and development of Melbourne and Launceston Airports, he now oversees a direct workforce of 300 and around $10 billion in assets.

In his words, his career is ‘fairly seasoned’ when it comes to crises, having survived the 1989 pilot’s strike, the oil embargo, SARS, 9/11, and the global financial crisis.

9/11 and the Covid-19 chasm

As Chief Operating Officer of Virgin Atlantic, Mr Strambi remembers the 9/11 experience professionally as akin to being pushed off a ledge and on the way down realising that there is a rope around your leg.

“As you’re falling, you’re looking back at this rope and thinking ‘my God, I think this rope is too long!’… There was a real chance we would fall on the rocks before the rope came to our rescue. So, our focus was on spending a whole lot of time trying to tie knots in that rope.”

Moving into the present and speaking of the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 situation, he expanded on the analogy, saying “again, it’s a bit like being pushed off a cliff, but the chasm we are being pushed into is so big you can’t even see the bottom. You can’t see the other side of the void that’s in front of us. And I look around and I can’t see a rope.” 

But according to Mr Strambi all is not lost, as history shows, the industry has always recovered. With this in mind, APAC has embraced a three-phase model for the COVID-19 situation: proactively responding, ensuring resilience for survival, and preparing for the inevitable rebound.

He provided some professional insights into Melbourne Airport’s response, the risk management and contingency measures undertaken and the corporate and financial restructuring. 

“Always have your wits about you and be ready to change… be an optimist, look hard for opportunity, keep looking and if you’re not finding it, look again.” 

Thinking ahead

While monitoring the emerging COVID-19 situation in China, Mr Strambi says the organisation saw the situation very quickly go from bad to worse and knew it had to act immediately and proactively, by thinking ahead.

He believes that aviation, being highly attuned to risk and with a mindset of change borne from past experiences, is well-placed to weather the storm; albeit a long and difficult storm.

For some other industries, such as construction and manufacturing, he suggests it will be a slow burn crisis with initial declines of five or 10 per cent of activity that may deepen over time. “For us it was easy to say ‘no, we need to get into this mode, we need to step it up a gear. No argument.”

Having survived previous major crises, Mr Strambi underscored the value of an immediate action mindset to the industry, saying “in a crisis, get the RIGHT stuff DONE”.

Melbourne airport.

Learning how to fly

For students of aviation, Mr Strambi offered some personal insights and some sage advice; in equal parts home truths and words of comfort, with some healthy doses of inspiration.

“Always have your wits about you and be ready to change… be an optimist, look hard for opportunity, keep looking and if you’re not finding it, look again.”

He also suggested that although the situation requires fast decisions and that crisis management necessitates altering the existing organisational processes of decision-making, it is critical to not respond in a knee-jerk manner.

“When you are confronted with something that’s really unusual, you often have a knee-jerk reaction, when what you really hope for is a ‘response’.  To have a response you need to have a consideration of it [the crisis] and then think about what the appropriate response might be.” 

And for those focussed on leadership roles, he explained the need to be careful of how, and what, is projected. “Be cognisant of the message you are sending. They are watching your every move. […] A little ripple at the top of the business becomes an earthquake at the bottom of the business.”

The recording of the webinar can be viewed here: Webinar Covid-19 Learning How to Fly

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