The Sky's The Limit

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Only a generation ago, a woman who wanted a career in aviation could expect to climb only as high as purser, or head flight attendant on a passenger jet. But last year a woman was named president of the world's most successful airline. Every major U.S. airline has at least one woman in a top executive position. Six of the nation's nine largest carriers have a woman as general counsel — the highest concentration in any major U.S. industry. Women have even taken over such traditionally male posts as chief financial officer and chief of pilots. And their colleagues, male and female, say these women are changing the way the airlines do business.

Airline CEOs say that while many of their male managers have emphasized hardware and thought of their job as moving planes efficiently from place to place, women executives seem to understand more clearly that they are in a service business — and that happy workers make for happy customers. Roughly half of airline employees are women, as are a growing number of frequent flyers. "There were very few women business travelers 20 years ago, and consequently the airlines didn't cater to them," says George Hamlin, an aviation consultant based in Washington. "Now women are not only an important part of the customer base, but the women who joined the airlines two decades ago have moved into management positions, where they can adapt airline policies to attract female customers."

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Here's a look at six of the most influential women in the airline business today:

Longmuir serves as her airline's top executive for governmental, regulatory and international affairs and compares the job to "playing 3-D global chess." A former corporate lawyer in New York City, she worked closely with then Transportation Secretary Andy Card, currently the White House chief of staff, and in 1992 helped coordinate federal disaster-relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew. She then went to work for United Airlines, now the world's second largest carrier, after American Airlines, and has been its voice in Washington — and foreign capitals — since 1993.

Longmuir, 46, credits Card and some of her other male bosses with "being so gender blind that they had more confidence in my abilities than I did." She believes women "are more comfortable working in teams, and that is an advantage in such a complex business" as aviation. She helped United make the transition to an employee-owned corporation, oversaw its successful international expansion and coordinated the Washington angle of the bold yet ultimately unsuccessful merger attempt with US Airways.

As the fortunes of U.S. airlines become more dependent on government regulations and largesse, Longmuir's experience in Washington is raising her profile. A smooth talker who double-majored in semiotics and Shakespearean literature at Brown University, Longmuir will need all her skills to deliver on the $1.8 billion loan application United has submitted to the government's airline stabilization board.

Sometimes it's the small things that Andy Schneider finds the most rewarding. Acting as both a mother of four and Alaska Airlines' vice president in charge of operations at 49 U.S and foreign airports, she oversaw construction of a larger, fully staffed room at the airline's hub in Seattle-Tacoma, Wash., in which unaccompanied minors can safely wait for their connecting flight. Schneider also helped improve the process for tracking kids on connecting flights and got TVs and vcrs for the waiting rooms. "Those rooms are improvements that matter not just to our customers," she says, "but are also important to our employees"--who suggested the special waiting areas. "It's part of trying to encourage new ideas."

Four years ago, when she was managing the airline's flight attendants, Schneider gave them universal e-mail access and allowed them to bid for their schedules online, a move that turned out to be a big time saver for the employees and a money saver for the company. A former accountant, Schneider, 37, moved through management of the in-flight service department to the male-dominated operational side of the airline in 1998. While much of her work involves drab buildings and heavy equipment, the Seattle-based executive reminds colleagues that "an airline is a people business." An avid jogger who enjoys spending time with her kids at the family retreat in Idaho, Schneider says, "I hope I serve as a role model for younger women who value both work and balance in their lives."

This former nurse couldn't stand the "female" airline departments. She burned out in the reservation center "because of the intense phone work," and customer service wasn't really working out either. Then she was pulled in to help the man running the properties department for Continental Airlines in Denver. Osterman found her niche. "That," she says emphatically, "was fun because of the diversity and challenge of the work."

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