Tatyana Fileva about working at S7 Group — the most difficult thing was to overcome the impostor complex

Tatyana Fileva, co-owner of Russia’s largest private airline S7 and daughter of its founders Natalia and Vladislav Filev, has collectively worked for S7 Group for over 14 years. Until October 2022, she held the position of CEO, having endured perhaps the most turbulent and difficult times for the entire industry: the closure of the skies due to covid restrictions, and then the consequences of the “special operation”. Tatyana came to the airline as an analyst, despite the fact that the business belonged to her parents. For a long time she was responsible for marketing, commerce and the loyalty program at S7.

Tatyana has been COO at S7 Group since 2016, and in 2019 she became the Chairman of the Board of Directors of S7 Airlines and continued to work in the holding. This happened shortly after the tragic events: on March 31, 2019, her mother Natalia died in a private plane crash near Frankfurt am Main.

A graduate of the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics of Moscow State University, Fileva is passionate about piloting, talks with enthusiasm about the design of an aircraft engine and fights gender stereotypes in aviation, creating new opportunities for female engineers, mechanics and pilots. During the crisis years, Tatyana, together with the team, rebuilt the network, the IT system and negotiated both with Western partners and the state to save the business. After leaving the post of CEO, Tatyana Fileva remained a shareholder of the company and focused on social projects and supporting women. In particular, in 2023 Tatyana became a jury member of the Forbes Woman Mercury Awards.

— In October, you resigned as CEO. Why did you make this decision? How much did the events of 2022 affect him?

– At the end of February 2022, something happened that I personally did not expect and could not even imagine. I remember that on February 26, on Saturday, the Ministry of Transport is holding a meeting, and representatives of all airlines come there – completely bewildered, not understanding how to live on. And I’m just as confused among them. After this meeting, we had a family council, where my dad said: “You realize that this is really bad? Are you ready to move on?” At that moment, I thought: what is one of my biggest fears? And I realized that it was the fear of letting my mother down, who built the company, believed in us as a family, believed in me. How can I let her down? For example, if S7 stops working or, most likely, becomes part of another state-owned company? And I told dad: “Listen, I will stand.” I came home, called my son’s grandparents from my husband’s side and asked them to pick up my grandson so that he could live with them during the most difficult period.

– And what did you hear at this meeting, why did you have such a reaction? What then became clear to you about the future fate of the S7 and aviation this year?

– Then, on February 26, no specific decisions were made at the first meeting. At first, everyone was just confused, honestly. Solutions came later.

And then we stood, it was hard, sometimes we just gave up, but we coped. I understood that it was critically important at that moment to stay with the team. I saw how the heads of other airlines left at the beginning of March, the management began to change. And our key team has survived – and these are people who have been working at S7 almost all their lives, many straight from the university bench. And together we somehow normalized the situation. And then I told a narrow circle at the end of March that when the situation is stabilized, I will leave the post of CEO and operations manager.

– Why?

– The first reason is that I am very tired of being an operations manager. I have been with the company for 14 years. In 2019, my mother had an accident, and two weeks later I had to go to the office and on the platform to the employees. And she was not only my mother, she was an inspiration for the whole company, such a common Mother for everyone. And I needed to talk to people so that they could see that we live on, that everything will be fine. And I, going out onto the platform, said something aloud, but inside I was empty.

Then 2020 happened – covid, business collapses by 90% in one month with a complete lack of understanding of what will happen next. And now the crisis years are coming, they just exhaled a little – and then 2022 has come. And you must understand that working in an enterprise with more than 10,000 people means making unpopular decisions all the time during a crisis. And at the same time work with people every day. And I said that I want to take a break when we stabilize the work. And for me, rest is a change of activity.

The second reason: even before February, I planned to start a number of new projects in 2023, which turned out to be impossible under the new circumstances. S7 is not only an airline, it is a large number of businesses, and it is very difficult to think about new launches when you are an operating officer in the current conditions. For example, in 2022, our regional low-cost airline was supposed to take off, and in early February last year, we approved the purchase of additional cargo aircraft, which, of course, is now impossible due to market restrictions. Now we need to solve other problems. And I’m still young and I know what I can create. And it seems like now is the right time for me to try it.

And the third reason: I knew for sure that we have a good person, a great professional who will become the next CEO. Dmitry Kudelkin has been with the company for almost 20 years, he started with us in Novosibirsk, and in recent years he has been the COO. That is why his candidacy was well received in the company, he has an excellent reputation.

So on October 21, I held a board of directors, where I reported on the good results of the year and there I proposed the candidacy of a new CEO.

– You say the word “stabilized”, what do you mean by that? What exactly did you do? What happened to the company in 2022, how has its work changed?

— What did we do? We rebuilt the route network, changed IT tools, did an insane amount of work with people. An effective subsidy program appeared in the Ministry of Transport, which was aimed specifically at subsidizing passengers, that is, in fact, it was given for each flight. Thus, the state tried to keep low prices for the population, so the cost of flights, despite inflation, did not increase in 2022 compared to 2021.

Of course, we were hit when all the foreign contractors said they were leaving. But we had several big advantages that we laid down even before 2022 – this is our own maintenance, which we have been doing for many years at our bases in Russia, and also our regional network. In addition to Moscow, we have bases in Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, the Far East, and this, of course, helped us rebuild the network. After September 21, when mobilization was announced, a lot of work had to be done with people. We have a business built on safety, with a large number of men in all positions. For example, in one day we had two damage to the aircraft by equipment on the platform, we had to somehow bring people to their senses, because they were under tremendous stress.

— Has your work been strongly influenced by the fact that S7 still has a large percentage of domestic flights? To what extent did the sky close for you in 2022?

– You know, we always wanted to fly abroad – and it didn’t work out. To be honest, we have had almost no foreign flights since 2020. First there was covid, as you remember, all foreign markets were closed. And then, when they began to open, priority was given to state-owned airlines, so we did not have time to restore foreign flights. We had the CIS, and we still fly to the CIS, but we did not have time to fly to Paris.

Therefore, in 2022, we quickly rebuilt the network, and in terms of flight hours, we had a record, because in general, traffic shifted to flights within the country. Such directions as Baikal and Altai have intensified, I’m not talking about the south – Sochi was opened, and the traffic there grew insanely.

– The issue that worries the most ordinary passenger is the quality of aircraft and the preservation of this quality in the absence of foreign partners. How did you solve this problem? How do you ensure the safety and quality of your aircraft now?

— I will not go into details, but I can say that we have been doing maintenance for many years on our own inside the country and continue to do it, the planes are safe. We wouldn’t fly them into the sky if they weren’t safe. We have the largest aircraft maintenance center in the country and a fairly strong regulator in this area. My son only flies S7 in Russia, because I know for sure that we have high standards and it is safe with us.

— S7 was the first and so far the only company that was allowed by the government to return imported liners to foreign lessors. How was it done?

“You have to understand that in the current situation we do not control which planes stay in the country and which ones fly out. This is a decision of the government of the Russian Federation and various authorities. We returned two Boeing 737 Max, these aircraft are not allowed to fly in Russia. And in fact, they have been standing on the ground for several years. Therefore, we could say: “Listen, well, the planes are standing still, we can’t fly them, can we at least return them?” And the process took eight months, it was not an easy story. And the airline does not control what is returned and what is not. Airlines can put effort into some paperwork if they’ve been told to do so.

– It seems that for you it was a year of such a crazy dichotomy, when, on the one hand, you had to resolve global issues with Russian officials, on the other hand, conduct negotiations of the same scale with Western partners in order to resolve the processes. How did it happen?

– As for our Western partners, they understood and understand the situation we are in: we do not control many decisions, they are made at other levels. So in negotiations with them, we rather came to an understanding and an attempt to at least settle something.

As for interaction within the country with government agencies, we must understand that we are a private company. And, of course, there have always been various subsidy programs for the Far East, for interregional transportation, and we interacted with the state on them. But it was an understandable interaction on a linear level. And in 2022, especially in the first months, there were many different industry meetings where representatives of all companies were invited. The question on the agenda was simple: how to help the industry? Everyone was extremely confused and together they tried to figure out how to maintain transport accessibility in the country.

And for me it is always difficult, because we, private traders, usually did not participate in this. But, on the other hand, there were many people at these meetings, and the floor is usually given to a state-owned company. And I sat on them in shock, then with a smile, then I tried to reach out so that they would not forget about us. And I was probably the only woman there besides the secretaries. But in our country, there is still such a thing that a woman in need needs help. And now I’m not talking about any kind of gender equality at all, because when you sit next to such people, this is no longer a question about men and women. There is a hierarchy there: these men are not equal to other men at the top. And at my level, I was a “woman in need” for them, so after the meetings they asked how to help me, tried to explain some details: for example, I did not really understand the mechanism for refinancing loans. Because I, as a representative of a private company, did not understand many things, I simply did not come across them before. And all this, of course, is about gender inequality, which, nevertheless, sometimes helps you in such situations.

– Judging by the draft state budget until 2025, next year special subsidies paid to airlines through the Ministry of Transport will be reduced to 25 billion rubles from the current 100 billion rubles. As a result, carriers will receive less than 54 billion rubles under the main subsidy programs, which is almost three times less than in 2022. Will Russian aviation be able to survive in such conditions? What are your overall predictions?

– As for subsidizing, one must understand that the program was aimed precisely at the passenger, at the passenger-kilometers that he actually flew. This was the position of those who formed this program: we want to stimulate demand. And this program was effective, as I said. The Ministry of Transport said it plans to carry 101 million passengers in 2023, an increase in domestic traffic compared to previous years.

How to survive? We are a company that is used to doing things on its own. But we must understand that prices for passengers and the volume of demand will depend on subsidies. Higher price means lower demand. And since the state subsidized fares for passengers, tickets were available to them at prices from the past, 2021.

— And what is your forecast about the further development of the industry? In which direction will the aircraft move?

– It seems to me that an important change that has already happened: engineers have begun to be valued more than bloggers. Now all engineering competencies are very important, we see that now there is a lot of talk about the domestic aircraft industry. And, of course, sooner or later it will develop, this is a matter of timing and investment. And we have always been helped by the strong competence of S7 in engineering, we have 2500 engineers.

Where is the industry heading? The industry will inevitably move, of course, towards the domestic aircraft industry, towards the use of domestic aircraft. How fast, we’ll see. You have to understand that it is still possible to fly on current aircraft of 10-12 years, if they are maintained. So, over these 10-12 years, the domestic aviation industry should develop.

I have this position: if more than one airline remains in the country (and I hope the country understands that one airline cannot handle the entire flow of passengers), then we will remain. Because we are working really well, and we have shown this both in covid and in 2022, no matter what. Of course, like any woman, I have a strong impostor complex, we have it much more than men. I remember how in March 2020 I suddenly realized that we were either stopping, or the business was becoming 5-10% of its former volumes. And I asked myself: how can I cope with this? And again, you can’t let mom down, she believed in us so much. But then we began to gradually step, step, step, to keep the business, to cope with the tasks. And when you later see the result of your work, the impostor complex also disappears step by step.

– Over the past year, have you thought about what your mother would do in your place? And how would she generally react to what is happening in the country?

– She would always believe and inspire people around to also believe and fight for what we do. And we are doing a good job – and better than anyone else in the country. So, we must continue.

All the time that you were the CEO of the company, there were cataclysms, the industry was in constant turbulence, and the country was in crisis. What have you learned about yourself as a leader and as a person during this time?

– First: all the main barriers are inside you, in your head. Yes, there are a lot of difficulties and problems outside, but they will always be. For me, the big challenge was overcoming the impostor complex. In 2022, men came to the podium and said: well, this is not a women’s business, times are difficult, now we will figure it out ourselves. But in fact, after the start of mobilization on September 21, we see that the economy began to fall on women’s shoulders.

But still, I constantly experienced this impostor complex: I am a young woman, I did not live in the 1990s and did not go through what all these men with whom I sit in meetings went through. But then you quietly walk along the steps and go forward, and then suddenly you see: you are still walking, but they have already stopped. And confidence grows.

– Once I happened to hear in an informal setting how you describe in great detail and with great enthusiasm how the Boeing engine works. It was very impressive. In addition, you yourself pilot. Is it just a family love for aviation, or do you, as a female leader, have to prove all the time that you are really a professional in your industry?

“I just don’t understand why doing something that you don’t really like. My whole family is in aviation, I love flying, I really like it. And this is very cool, it’s just that many do not take this step, because their life is different. Can you say that I did it to earn someone’s respect? I am not sure. Probably, for this I went to study at the Mechanics and Mathematics Department of Moscow State University, when my dad told me: “Look at yourself, if you want to be taken seriously, you need quality standards. Maybe you will go to study at the Mekhmat? And I went.

And everything else happened organically – I’m just very interested in talking about airplanes. And I understand this well, better than most people in the country. And this is my job, which I love very much.

— In recent years, you have been paying more and more attention to gender equality in aviation and beyond. In particular, thanks to your efforts, from March 1, 2022, a woman can be an aircraft maintenance mechanic. To what extent is aviation in Russia still a professional field closed to women?

– Let me start with the situation in the world: in developed countries, women pilots are on average 5%. That is, to be honest, aviation all over the world is a very masculine industry. The (Australian) airline Qantas was named the leader in gender equality, with almost 12%. But again, not 50%! In Lufthansa, in my opinion, 6%, and in the same Emirates, less than 2% of pilots. Why is it still a worldwide male industry? Because aviation needs an “image of reliability”, and this is still a man in a stereotypical view.

And Russia is no exception; rather, we have even more stereotypes. Of course, as a woman pilot and a woman leader, I would like to see more equality in aviation. You gave an example about a mechanic – yes, we were the initiators of removing this profession from the list of prohibited ones at the legislative level, and even made a locker room specifically for female mechanics. But, if I’m not mistaken, only one woman has come to us so far.

– Why? No relevant education? Or are they afraid?

– Because all this needs to be popularized, otherwise women simply do not know about their capabilities. Here we have a pilotess who retrained from a flight attendant, for example. There are great stories of women that need to be told. Because at the moment it’s still a male industry that women just don’t go into.

You know, each of our pilots with whom I spoke admitted that on this path (and to become a pilot, you have to go through many interviews with a bunch of different people), almost any interlocutor asked her: why do you need this at all? They did not even put up obstacles, but simply by this very question they undermined the faith and mood of the woman.

Therefore, we at S7 are constantly creating various initiatives that should change the situation. For example, they built a kindergarten near Domodedovo, because our pilots and flight attendants have irregular shifts so that they can leave their children there. Now we are thinking of developing this practice in Novosibirsk so that women can leave their children there for the whole day, quietly working their shifts.

– It is often said that there are few women in such professions, because it is hard physical labor or there is a danger to reproductive functions. With regard to aviation, are these stereotypes or are there objective factors?

– With modern technology, these are stereotypes. It used to be really difficult for a woman to pull the steering wheel, but now even I can fly the plane. Rather, there is a problem with non-standard schedules, you are constantly on flights, you are not at home much, and for many women this becomes an important barrier if they want to build a family. And so all the equipment is modern, we even have girls on the platform who serve the planes. I really hope that we will continue to grow them in mechanics.

— What systemic changes should take place in the industry to make aviation more accessible to women?

– It is important that companies remove household barriers for women – everything that concerns a flexible approach to employees with children. Because often a woman is ready to work, but with whom should she leave her child? What if it’s a single mother? And in the current situation, there are more and more women who are left alone with children. So, we need special programs to help women solve their simple everyday issues.

The next systemic issue is how to lure girls into the profession, how to show them its availability, and give them the necessary education.

— One of your pilots, Sophia, told me that even in a progressive airline, women in her position face stereotypes from fellow male pilots. And then, she said, you sit at the helm, do your job well – and after a while your cockpit partner simply has nothing to say to you. Do you agree with the statement that competencies always defeat stereotypes?

– If you were given to sit at the helm, then competencies can win. Unfortunately, not always and not everywhere. Somewhere at the conditional steering wheel you simply will not be imprisoned. I am aware that women actually have professional barriers and in most cases your professionalism can really remove them. The question is, did they let you show your professionalism.

You know, my grandmother had a story like that. At 23, she had 300 subordinates, she worked at the factory. By standards, she overworked a lot, but she did it because she knew there was room for growth in their plant. But in the end, it was not my grandmother who was raised, but a man who had less experience and lower qualifications. She then came to one of the leaders of the plant and said: “Well, how is it?” And they honestly explained to her: the reason is that she is a woman. Such situations still exist today. But professionalism, indeed, overcomes many barriers. And we must try, otherwise we will not win.

— Do I understand correctly that, while remaining a shareholder of the company, you see your role in the future in the development of social projects and the diversity strategy?

– At the end of October, I resigned as CEO, and now I’m on vacation, so I don’t take an active part in the life of the company. What I do is social projects. It seems to me that now this is the most important, and I believe that humanity will slowly move the world in the right direction.

– How to explain to the board of directors, chief accountant and commercial director in 2023 that the company should spend money on social projects, and not on saving the business?

– This largely depends, of course, on the general culture in the company and on what its management broadcasts. Let me give you an example: at the end of April, when I was able to breathe a little, I took a vacation and went to work as a volunteer for refugees. And it was a unique experience for me. I swept the floor – and for the first time in my life I was grateful that I had this opportunity. When I returned and spoke about my experience, it resonated with many in the company. They wrote to me: “Thank you for doing this.” People want to help, they want to do something good. It is very important for them to give a reason to do something good.

I returned from this trip with an understanding: small good deeds make a big good deed. You know, I once heard in some song the words: “Darling is cheap, but the skin is expensive.” Here the little soul should not be cheap.

And then I sat down to talk with our HR, with our marketing, and I saw that they want to be involved in something good. So, in particular, there was a story with the support of the GirlPower football school.

— It seems that there is nothing more paradoxical than the idea of ​​​​supporting a women’s football team in the midst of world hell, but you did it. Why?

– In the spring I had a complete feeling of helplessness. It seemed to me: I do something, I do, I do, but I can’t do anything. There is nothing at the exit. And when I found out that there is a girls’ football team, among which more than 70% are from low-income families, that they had foreign sponsors who left and took all sponsorship money, that the coaches had not received their salaries for several months, I realized that for me this is an opportunity to help in some way. And it is important for me that these girls from childhood will not have barriers in their heads, which activities are “male” and which are “female”. And that a woman should decide for herself what she wants to do, even if society imposes stereotypes on her. Let us decide for ourselves what is difficult and dangerous for us and what is not.

In addition, sports will be a support for these girls in the most difficult time. I was a professional athlete myself as a child. This project is at odds with the values ​​I have always fought for. I also really liked the idea that usually men’s teams support airlines all over the world, and here girls will have S7 written on their uniforms. I thought how cool it would look. This summer, together we made a camp for football players “Chance”, thanks to which the girls got into professional teams.

How has your life changed since leaving office and what are your plans? They wrote that you are in San Francisco.

– At the moment I am in Moscow, and while I am here, but I really flew to the USA. I just recently went on vacation. Now I fly on an airplane and gain strength and ideas. I have to fly an instrument flight program for an aircraft pilot, which I will do today.

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