Stephanie Chung
Stephanie Chung, President, JetSuite. (Photo: Marinano Rosales/AIN)

Q&A: JetSuite’s Stephanie Chung

Stephanie Chung is the first African American woman to head up a major business aviation access provider. Her top position at JetSuite, the light jet charter and membership program pioneer, represents the latest turn in an aviation career that has found her always ready to face the next challenge. 

Chung, who talks proudly about her “Air Force brat” pedigree, grew up on bases in Massachusetts, Florida, North Dakota, California, New Mexico, and Colorado. “Listening to the planes take off and land” as a youngster, combined with family air travel and road trips between posts, fueled her interest in aviation. “We moved every two years,” Chung says. “My parents would make it an adventure—sightseeing and doing all the touristy stuff—and I was intrigued by it all.”

Her childhood experiences also gave Chung a lifelong appreciation of the sacrifices that service members’ families make. While her master sergeant father performed classified radar operations, her mother found administrative, teaching, and other positions, as available. “My hat’s off to all military spouses,” she says. “If they’re working, they have to find a new job every two years.”

We asked Chung—who is engaging, effervescent, energetic, and partial to bold colors—about her career path. We also talked to her about what she brings to the corner office and how she leads a team in the dynamic and highly competitive membership access space. 

What brought you to aviation professionally?
I wanted to work at the airlines. Thirty-five years ago, airlines were very prestigious—they got a thousand applicants per day. As soon as I graduated high school, I got a certification in travel and hospitality from Bryant & Stratton College in Virginia Beach [Virginia], so I could get a job in the hospitality industry to build my resume. 

I was happy and excited, and in one day went to every single travel agency, getting rejection after rejection. The second-to-last agency was owned by a lady, and she said, “Honey, you need to get a job in a man’s field to make money.” She was trying to be helpful, but I’d just worked three jobs to pay for school. I sat in my car and cried a little bit, and then I remembered I had one more [possible job] on the list, and “finish what you start” had always been instilled in me. I did my little spiel and the manager hired me on the spot.

[After spending six years in the travel business], I was hired by Piedmont Airlines and cross-trained for customer service and working on the ramp at Boston Logan Airport. I loved, loved, loved working on the ramp—it’s one of the funnest jobs. I grew up around soldiers, so I felt very comfortable loading luggage with the cowboys.

I was working the ticket counter one day and a vice president of sales pulled me aside and said, “Every time I see you, you’re smiling, greeting customers. You should think about sales.” I got promoted into the sales department, handling corporate accounts.

How did you move from airlines into business aviation?
[From Piedmont], I’d been recruited as corporate sales manager for Delta Dream Vacations by a client who owned some travel agencies, and then a recruiter called me about working at Skyjet, Bombardier’s entry-level charter access program. I had never heard of Bombardier or an FBO, and I didn’t know anything about private aviation. It felt like a whole secret world opened up: “What do you mean they go into a different airport?!” I came onboard as a charter salesperson, and a year later they asked me to come over to the Flexjet sales team, and I became vice president of sales for the West Coast.

Did you ever want to be a pilot or earn a pilot’s license?
I didn’t necessarily want to be, but I thought I should be if I was going to be in the industry. I took one lesson [at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport]. It was beautiful. Then I got out of the airplane and I threw up. It did not agree with me. I was so sick. 

Why did you briefly leave the aviation industry after working at Flexjet? And what brought you back?
Bombardier was a fantastic company. I’d been there five years, and we got Flexjet to profitability and helped with the M&A [merger and acquisition] when Bombardier was going through tough times with the Learjet 85 and the CRJ [Canadair Regional Jets] and needed to sell one of the profitable divisions. We were all given a great [severance] package. 

I realized what I really loved about the job, more than aviation, was the development of people, so I decided I would step out on my own and start a consulting practice. JetSuite was a customer. I coached their sales team and did a lot of training with them, and when the organization moved to Dallas [from California], Alex [Wilcox, JetSuite cofounder and CEO] offered me the president’s position.
 

You came to JetSuite amid a major transition.
JetSuite started out as a value-added, low-cost provider on the West Coast, the launch customer for the [Embraer] Phenom 100. It was created and birthed during the recession—the perfect product at the perfect time. I was at Flexjet then, and owners were turning in their fractional shares and getting out of whole ownership, and though they were downgrading, they weren’t flying Southwest [Airlines]. So jet cards and on-demand charter served JetSuite well over the past nine years.

Now we’ve decided the value-added, low-cost provider is not our market. The focus now is how to take JetSuite to another level. It’s the light jet premium experience for the premium client. Now the Phenom 300 is the core aircraft. We’ve elevated the onboard experience and spent time putting cool things in place: complimentary catering, Coyuchi organic blankets, vegan and gluten-free snacks, elevated amenities and beverages. We’ve moved from value more toward five-star hospitality. Our onboard philosophy is, if it were a hotel, what would they expect for $1,000 per night? In our case, they’re spending thousands of dollars per hour.

How do you transform a brand from value-added to premium?
Leadership experience and executive coaching all come into play. The first piece is bringing team building and culture creation into the JetSuite experience, and that starts with communication. For us to create a brand people talk about, I need to make our vision clear to all our employees and get them excited, so that they want to apply their talents and take it from there. We create an environment where people know the vison and are excited to be part of it. We want to make sure employees are having fun.

I take the role of leader very seriously. I’m a breast cancer survivor, and cancer changes your perspective. It made me a better person. I started to focus on things that are truly important, and nothing is more important than human beings. When I’m standing in front of someone, I’m all in, listening to what they’re saying, and I’m engaged. You won’t see me looking at a phone in a meeting. People are not allowed to use their phones in JetSuite meetings. 

How do you know if the transformation is working?
Measuring the business is super important. One way we do that is with KPI [Key Performance Indicators] reports. Every department has target metrics, and every two weeks we have a standup meeting for all employees, and each department reports what they did. We want to make sure every department knows how what they do impacts other departments. Employees really want to know how they impact where we are going as a company.

We’re also passionate about conducting monthly surveys of every client who flew with us that month; our employees’ bonuses are tied into those surveys. There’s a question related to every department. We ask about the pilots, about the experience, the onboard amenities and snacks, cleanliness, the account manager, the guest-services team, and the accuracy of information. Customer feedback is how we make adjustments.

We also make pilots accountable to give us feedback; they’re with the clients for hours at a time. They report trip details, and those are passed on to the departments they impact. Department leaders are empowered to use the feedback to make changes.

What distinguishes your memberships as “premium”?
We offer three service levels—Executive, Chairman, and Founder—with benefits and perks consistent with each tier. Two of the service levels offer a dedicated account manager, a person who knows everything about the customer. That gets back to team building and why it’s important to take care of employees. We give them a budget to visit the client or the client’s assistant, to develop that trust. Our clients invite them into their homes; some have dinner with the family. It takes the relationship to a different level. That’s why we have such a high renewal rate [on memberships]. Sure, we offer apps—we want to make it easy for our clients to do business with us—but we think a premium experience is also about human interaction. Our survey results tell us clients love working with the account managers.

Some charter operators have all but abandoned the light-aircraft market, citing it as a low-margin business. 
Nobody was offering [what we offer] in the light jet space. We know the light jet is an important piece of the big picture. That’s why we elevated the experience. People are looking for an experience. Not just travel to and from. We thought, “Why not us?” To answer the bigger question, how does that work with [light jet] margins? Overall, [all charter is] a sexy but low-margin business. 

Do you see any future in per-seat charter for JetSuite?}
We leave that to our sister company, JSX [formerly JetSuiteX, the West Coast-centric VIP shuttle operator]. We support them any way we can. 

What is your relationship with JSX?
We’re housed in the same buildings and share some administrative services, but we’re completely different brands, and it’s important for everybody internally to be thinking differently. We have different companies, different customers, different operating certificates, and different missions. Our focus is on high-net-worth travelers.

How is JetSuite addressing the pilot shortage?
We don’t have much turnover. But as we grow, we still need to bring on more pilots, so we’re proactive about building a pipeline. Diversity and inclusion are important to us. We go to a lot of schools looking for employees at an early age. We go to the National Gay Pilots Association, the Organization of Black Aviation Professionals, and Women in Aviation [International] to recruit, so we can support the causes, but equally to make sure we have a diverse workforce.

You’ve risen very high for someone without a college degree. Are you surprised at how far you’ve come?
I don’t want to sound arrogant, but not really. When I got out of high school, I couldn’t afford college. I never felt a college degree made as much of a difference as all the other values that are equally if not more important. For a long time as I was coming up, I wished I had a college degree — many of the jobs required them. I still interviewed [for the positions] and got them. They knew I didn’t have a degree but liked other things. [At JetSuite] we’re trying to hire based on work attitude, ethics, and cultural fit. A lot of successful folks who changed our world don’t have a college degree.

Have you experienced any roadblocks along the way because you are female or black?
No. I have no idea what you’re talking about! [Laughs.] Yes, but as the saying goes, tough times don’t last—tough people do. I’m very focused on what I want to get accomplished. I don’t get sidetracked by the noise. I still have, I won’t say roadblocks, but challenges because I’m a woman or a minority. It doesn’t go away. Groups in marginalized sectors live with it every day.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.


Resume

Name: Stephanie Chung

Born: May 5, 1965, Otis Air Force Base, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Position: President, JetSuite

Education: George Washington High School, Denver. Certification in travel and hospitality, Bryant & Stratton College, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Author: Profit Like a GirlA Woman’s Guide to Kicking Butt in Sales and Leadership

Charitable activities/civic groups: Elevation Society, Executive Women’s Roundtable, Texas Commission on Law Enforcement

Personal: Lives in Dallas. Married. One grown daughter. Enjoys spending time with family and going to the spa.

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