Azerbaijan International

Winter 2002 (10.4)
Page 85

Then and Now
The Changing Airline Industry in Azerbaijan
by Sabina Sharifova

British Airways' Baku Manager, Sabina Sharifova, 27, is part of a contingent of young, bright Azerbaijani women who are quickly working their way up the corporate ladder. It's a noticeable trend that has developed over the past few years, signaling a dramatic departure from the hiring patterns of the Soviet era. In our look back at the past 10 years, we asked Sabina to reflect on some of the significant changes that she has seen in the travel industry.

We've seen enormous growth here at British Airways since we opened the first international air service here in 1995. At that time, we offered flights only three times a week, using Boeing 737s. In April 2000, our Baku-London route was incorporated into the regional network operated by franchise partner British Mediterranean Airways, using Airbus A320 aircraft. Slowly but steadily, the number of flights increased to four, five and then six a week. As of last year, we began offering daily flights on the Baku-London route, with ongoing flights to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Almaty (Kazakhstan).

Left: The administrative staff of British Airways in Baku. The sales office is located in the Hyatt International Center on Ismir Street.

These days, of course, security is on everyone's minds. Our top priority is, and always has been, the safety and security for our passengers and staff. When people speculated that British Airways (being British and somehow aligned with the United States), would become a target for terrorists, we didn't panic. We have added additional security measures here, however. For instance, we have a control check every two or three weeks just to make sure that the staff knows how to respond in case there ever was an emergency situation.

There is also a high level of security at Baku's airport. Recently, an independent inspector from the British Airport came and checked on the security at the airport. He concluded that it was close to 100 percent satisfactory.

New Airport
In my opinion, Baku's new airport is the finest in the region, superior to both Georgia and Kazakhstan. I remember the early days, working at the old Baku airport, when I worked at the airport check-in and sold tickets as a multi-functional agent. Those days aren't so long ago but when I look back, I wonder how we ever survived. It was so hot and stuffy days in the summer with no air-conditioning. But in winter, we would nearly freeze. You could feel the wind blowing right through the baggage claim area.

Back then, the computer and telecommunications systems were completely unreliable. The computer system was almost always down. We would spend nearly all day trying to put a call through to the BA office in Moscow to book the tickets. The only reliable systems we had were telephone and fax; of course, there was no such thing as e-mail in those early days.

Hiring Practices

Left: British Airways' Hot Air Balloon on display in Baku.

There's been considerable change in hiring practices in Azerbaijan's travel industry over the past few years. Back when I was first hired, seven years ago, the ability to speak English was the greatest advantage in landing a job. The situation lasted only for about three years. Once the FSA [Freedom Support Act] exchange students began returning from the United States, there were many young people who were fluent in English. In turn, that meant that being English fluency did not guarantee job security.

Now I'm in the position to do the hiring. What I look for most in a young person is potential and intelligence. Our work is highly detailed-oriented so we train for each position. It's much easier for me to hire a young, inexperienced person than it is to hire someone who has worked under the old Soviet system.

So I look for people who have good communication skills and an attitude of service. Psychologically, our employees have to work as a team. They have to be open minded, not arrogant.

Despite the fact that more people know English these days, I'm think that hiring is more difficult because young people have higher expectations. They are more ambitious, and they don't want to begin at entry-level positions. When they come for the interview, they immediately inquire about their salary. But the truth is: not everyone can be a manager. Our youth have to be willing to start at the bottom and work their way up.

Let's say I want to hire someone to answer phones all day. When I was starting out, I thought this job was very interesting. You get the chance to talk to so many people every day. Sure, it doesn't draw a high-level salary, but it's a place to start out for a year or so. These days, it's becoming more difficult to fill that type of position. People turn up their noses at entry-level jobs, despite how tight the job market is. It's seems it's all about money now - rather than the excitement of working for an airline - as it was when I first started.

Woman Manager
I'm one of the youngest managers in Baku right now. Actually when they offered me the position several years ago, I was quite surprised. I never expected such an opportunity would open so quickly for me. At first, I wondered whether I would be able to cope. But then I realized that with five years of experience, I knew almost everything that I needed to know. I discovered that the staff did trust me and saw me as a leader. When I talked to my husband about it, he supported me, even though it would mean business trips and longer hours in the office.

I think this job is in my blood. I'm absolutely addicted to the travel environment, that's for sure. I wouldn't be able to do anything else. I also have a wonderful staff; we're like a close - knit family. I enjoy working in travel, especially because I like talking to people and trying to solve their problems. That brings such a great feeling of satisfaction.

Sabina Sharifova was interviewed by AI Publisher Pirouz Khanlou and AI Baku Manager Arzu Aghayeva. To read a previous article about Sharifova, see "Youth at Work: Sabina Sharifova, British Airways," AI 7.1 (Spring 1999).

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