It is always a moment of awe witnessing an Aircraft taking off the runway or landing on the ground, which is also probably one of the greatest innovations of Engineering and Design !

Vairavan Ganesh, our next pathbreaker, Airport Planner, provides design solutions for development of greenfield / brownfield airports, with specialization in the airfield, which includes terminal interfaces (runways, taxiways, aircraft parking apron and other airside facilities). 

Vairavan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his masters degree in Aviation Management at Middle Tennessee State University , doing his real internship at Murfreesboro Municipal Airport where he also learnt to fly, and currently holding a PPL license (Private Pilot License, certified by FAA) to get a pilot’s perspective.

For students, don’t just be awestruck by aircrafts taking off, aspire to be a part of an ecosystem that serves as the interface between the ground and the skies ! You will never have a dull day !

Vairavan, a little bit about Your background?

I grew up in Chennai and my schooling till higher secondary was at AVMR (fortunately I was in the same school throughout). 

Growing up, I was a curious kid, with an early interest in science (physics) and math. I found myself pretty good at analytics and problem solving from the early days (by which I mean numbers/logical reasoning).   

My mother is a housewife, and father is into business (advertising photography). Father passed on his English knowledge (accents and pronunciation mainly) as he used to deal with a lot of foreign delegates at his office. 

What did you pursue as your formal education after school?

Though my interest was in Mechanical Engineering, due to peer pressure (actually Father 😉 ), I chose Aeronautical Engineering at HITS (Hindustan Institute of Technology & Science).

After passing out, I wanted to go abroad and pursue my masters as it was a fancy choice. Many of my friends from college were taking their GRE and flying abroad (I don’t regret that, but IIT or IIMs would have been worth a try). I applied to various schools for different curriculums (Industrial Engineering, Engineering Management and Aviation Management). My application got accepted for Aviation Management and I went on to pursue a degree in aviation management at MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University). 

MTSU is considered one of the top 3 schools in the US for aviation related degrees and a “State University” (not very expensive in comparison with its competitor ERAU). 

My decision to do my post-graduation in Aviation Management at Middle Tennessee State University made me stick to the industry (by sheer luck), which I am truly thankful for. 

Though I wasn’t too good at the technical subjects during my undergrad (i.e., structures, mechanics of machines and thermodynamics etc.), I wanted to stick to this industry, and aviation management sounded more like what I really wanted to do. 

I got a scholarship through MTSU Center for Educational Media Computer Facilities. I was selected through an application process and in-an person interview. Academics was a pre-requisite to apply for this position. I was among the top 10% of graduate students in terms of academic ranking, with a perfect 4.0 till my final semester. 

At MTSU, I learnt the efforts that go into design and development of an airport and its day-to-day operations. By actually being at the airport, as part of the curriculum, one can opt for an internship (Smyrna & Murfreesboro were the two options given to the students). 

How did you think of such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

I got serious about my professional pathway in the third semester of my master’s degree. I sat down and started identifying the skills I’m good at and researched online for job descriptions matching my skill set. The role of an Airport planner was a 90% match with my skillset. The skills I was good at or which I listed down were: CAD (drafting), Problem Solving (logical) and Airport Design/Development (one of the courses I took at MTSU). 

I also took up a 3rd party resource to identify my strengths. It was called strength finder 2.0, which generates a report based on your answers in a survey that you take online (Note: Paid). 

The main requirement for the job of an airport planner is a degree in aviation management or a related course (another strong reason why I chose this role). Post this, I started speaking to airport planners globally through LinkedIn and sent questionnaires regarding what it was like to work as an airport planner and what other skills I should develop to land a job in the US. Many suggested that I learn to fly, or to at least get a private pilot license to get a pilot’s perspective(first step in airline pilot pathway). I took up flying at my school with the extra money I had (I was given a scholarship and stipend for my second year, so no tuition fees). I failed at my first attempt and passed in the second check ride (took about 6 months to finish it).

I’m currently a PPL (Private Pilot License) holder (Certified by FAA)

How did you get to where you are today? Tell us about your career path

I chose the Murfreesboro Municipal Airport to do my internship which was part of the curriculum. This is where I learnt to fly after my internship. The internship included daily inspection of the airfield and managing daily operations at the airport while working under the airport manager. 

After applying to hundreds of jobs, I managed to crack a personal interview with Michael Baker International for the position of Planning Intern II. I was selected and started working for them after my graduation. I spent about 6 months with them, contributing to the airport master plan development and learning to fly drones for runway inspection. 

Drafting skills are a fundamental requirement for all engineering roles, as it helps planners develop design solutions in airport development projects. I’m proficient in airfield design (where aircrafts taxi and takeoff to their destination). 

Though I was offered a full-time position with sponsorship, I had to quit and return to India due to personal/health reasons. The transition from school to job did not work quite well for me. This situation made me step back and think about what I wanted to do next. 

After a lot of chaos, I decided to move back to India. I spent some time with my family and meanwhile, applied for a full-time junior airport planner position in Mumbai, India (at CH2M Hill). 

I am currently working with CH2M Hill. Fortunately, I met a lot of mentors at the company who took great interest in my career development. The journey has been great so far with a lot of learning and challenging experiences. 

How did you get your first break? 

I cracked this job through LinkedIn (gold mine if you know how to use it) by reaching out to the Managing Director of the company (CH2M Hill, India). 

What are some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I had a breakdown (during the transition from school to an actual job). I decided to spend some time with family and to work on myself for a couple of months to mentally prepare for what I wanted to do next. It was a difficult two months, but with the backing of friends & family, I am at a better place now. 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

I’m an Airport Planner/Analyst with Jacobs Engineering Group. As a planner, I’m supposed to define the basis for the design of greenfield/brownfield airport development. To define the basis, I use several industry recognized practices and statistical models (developed for different airport facilities). 

I provide design solutions to our clients and define strategies for growing their business. The skills you need are knowledge of airport design and development regulations/guidelines (in India ICAO/DGCA), analytical and problem solving skills (airport domain) and drafting (basic level). 

The skills I mentioned above are very basic which one can acquire through a diploma (IATA) or through a professional degree like mine.

A typical day for me now would be like, many meetings 😊 (due to Covid19).  

Also, there is never a boring moment in this role. 

How does your work benefit society? 

I love this job because I am indirectly involved in a chain which helps people connect from one place to another. I’m a part of an ecosystem which helps make airports a better place for passengers and stakeholders (including pilots, operators, airlines etc.).

My clients are airport operators and promoters. 

I specialize in the airfield which includes terminal interfaces (runways, taxiways, aircraft parking apron and other airside facilities). 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I developed an airline schedule analyzer tool for my director to support our company in business development. It took about a couple of months to explore the task, try different platforms to define a solution, and crack the problem using excel macros. I am now a go to person for this particular assignment globally. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Apart from academics, focus on your mental health and attitude, which I know a lot of students would not be familiar with. Professional success and monetary benefits are by-products if you work on the above. 

Develop good relationships with people and make more connections (healthy of course) to support you through your career path and personal life. 

Future Plans?

Covid ruined my plans (just joking). 

I want to give a shot to opportunities abroad. I want to explore new cultures and put my adaptability skills to test in a new working environment outside my country (which I was struggling to do in the past). I am getting comfortable in my present job, (i.e., dealing with people/clients and colleagues) and staying close to my family. Moving out will help me grow as a person and gain new perspectives on how to approach complex problems in my personal and professional life. 

I’d like to stick to the same industry (airports).My second choice is finance. The reason I’m saying finance is because I’m good with numbers. However, I haven’t got any real experience or exposure to that industry yet, but would love to.