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Inside Coca-Cola’s Flight Operations Team

Coke reveals its formula for supporting a truly worldwide company: Everybody in the flight operation is a leader.

With customers in more than 200 countries and territories, The Coca-Cola Company reaches people everywhere. The iconic brand was an early pioneer of business aviation, and still leads the way on flying safety, sustainability, service, diversity and professional development.

Coca-Cola’s executive team is based on six continents. The company has bottling and marketing partners in every region, new brands joining the Coca-Cola family, and sponsored events like the FIFA World Cup taking place all over the globe. No wonder then, that 75% of the 1,500 hours flown on business aircraft in 2022 were international missions.

“This company is all about relationships – that human connection of enjoying Coca-Cola. And the entire globe is our market,” said Juan Castro, general manager of executive aviation and travel. “The only way to enable our business globally is by using these aircraft to make those connections.”

“With every aviation function we have, everyone is empowered to make the best decisions for the business.”

Juan Castro General Manager of Executive Aviation and Travel

In 2022, Coca-Cola dispatched its three Gulfstream G600s to more than two dozen countries, with stops in Tirana, Albania; Kuta, Indonesia; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Podgorica, Montenegro – plus about 20 domestic destinations across the U.S.

Operating on such a global scale requires quick decision-making and leadership across the 27-person aviation team.

“With every aviation function we have, everyone is empowered to make the best decisions for the business,” said Castro. “When they’re 5,000 miles away, they are not calling me in Atlanta and asking permission to change the schedule or how to utilize the resources available. That makes us ‘Agile,’ working as a team to represent the brand.”

‘We’re Problem Solvers’

Everyone is trusted to work independently and together to support the passengers – the aviation team’s internal customers.

“We build the trust piece, because we’re problem solvers,” said pilot Michael Martens. “We operate around the world all night and all day. We figure things out for our customers and do it safely.”

Coca-Cola provides new opportunities for everyone on the aviation team. Martens is an NBAA Certified Aviation Manager (CAM). Kellie Young, a pilot and training coordinator, and Amelia Perez, the flight and business administrator, are both NBAA 40 Under 40 alumnae. Team members are active in professional associations, local Civil Air Patrol chapters and technical advisory committees.

“Everyone is a leader here,” said Chief Pilot Reese Jamison.

Brand New Roles

In recent years, as The Coca-Cola Company adopted Agile management principles companywide, the flight operation did too. Top-down decision-making was not only too slow to align with the company’s lean and flexible model, but also caught fewer safety issues.

The leadership gave flight department employees more authority and created new roles to better reflect the managerial mindset they needed across the org chart.

Until recently, functions were organized more traditionally. The maintenance department was staffed like a service center, with assistant managers, chief inspectors and 13 technicians. Logs were kept with a typewriter.

The team performed most maintenance in-house, but that took jets off the line, and aircraft availability hovered around 80%. As business jets became more advanced, they needed less in-house support.

“We were set up like a level-three trauma center and the airplanes were healthier patients,” said Chris Painter, director of technical operations. “We eliminated the maintenance technician role from our org chart, and replaced it with the aircraft program manager (APM), which is a brand-new role that we wrote from scratch.”

Coca-Cola now has four APMs – three are assigned to a tail number and one is a generalist. They effectively function like directors of maintenance for their aircraft – writing budgets, working with vendors and planning major inspections.

Staying Agile

In shifting to the new model, APMs flexibly decide to perform maintenance in-house or at repair shops based on the schedule. This enhanced aircraft availability by 15% and informed fleet planning, saving the company millions of dollars.

The company also created an aircraft cabin program manager (ACPM) role, giving flight attendants full authority over the back of the airplane.

Each of three ACPMs oversees the cabin of a specific tail number. A fourth, Brittany Knight, manages the hangar commissary. They contract with vendors and troubleshoot Wi-Fi issues for passengers. That improves crew resource management, enabling pilots to focus on flying the airplane.

“The difference is the independence we’re given,” said Knight. “We make some big decisions on budgets and cabin equipment. We’re considered managers within the department and the company.”

Staying Innovative

This approach extends throughout the flight department. Every Coca-Cola pilot is a captain. The dispatch team is managed by pilot Stephanie Hartsfield, who oversees the end-to-end passenger experience as director of client support services.

The safety team, led by Director of Safety and Pilot Jason Kinlaw, posted QR codes on the hangar walls and inside the aircraft, making it easier to submit hazard reports.

They also instituted a fatigue management program. During trip planning, software from Pulsar Informatics generates a fatigue score for every leg, and Hartsfield’s dispatch team has complete authority – and autonomy – to bring that score down by making crew changes, delaying a flight or chartering supplemental lift.

“Ownership is part of our secret formula,” explained Painter. “It’s very much a self-directed team.”

As an early adopter of Microsoft Teams in 2019, they minimized emails and improved communication.

“Everything gets written up on one channel,” said Young, an international captain, “so if a different crew comes in, nothing falls through the cracks.”

“With Teams, the company started using our department as a model for change,” Martens said.

The Power of Diversity

As Sean Lee, Coca-Cola global vice president for customer care, put it, “Everything the enterprise does, the aviation department should mimic that. This department finds everywhere they can align with the company goals and where they can lead.”

“We serve a global brand and that is reflective of so many nationalities and different genders.”

Kellie Young International Captain

Another area where the flight department aligns is diversity. Coca-Cola’s aviation team is 28% female, 32% African American, 10% Hispanic and 3% Asian American. About 40% are U.S. military veterans.

“I think it does the business good,” said Young. “We serve a global brand and that is reflective of so many nationalities and different genders.”

Castro is proud that Coca-Cola has women pilots and men in cabin management roles as ACPMs.

“We have a good mix of experience and diversity of thought,” said Castro. “That makes us better problem-solvers.”

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Leading the Way on Sustainability

The Coca-Cola Company in 2022 was one of a few companies to earn NBAA’s inaugural Sustainable Flight Department Accreditation, taking major actions to reduce its environmental footprint.

The operation aims to fly on 10% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in 2023, and 25% by 2030. The aircraft are towed with electric tug vehicles, and the hangar’s fuel cart is also electric. Renewing the fleet every five years continues to improve fuel efficiency, and the company plans to offset carbon emissions from business aviation by 50% going forward.

The NBAA accreditation encourages companies to implement as many sustainability strategies as possible. Also open to FBOs, manufacturers and others, it promotes a culture of sustainability for the industry.

“Our initiatives are aligned with The Coca-Cola Company’s sustainability goals,” said Amelia Perez, flight and business administrator, and the department’s sustainability lead. “We’re really proud of this accreditation, to be pioneers in this industry and make a difference in the world.”

Coca-Cola also implemented an inflight recycling program and partners with vendors that share their environmental standards.

“It’s about setting achievable goals,” said Juan Castro, general manager of executive aviation and travel. “We’re doing what we can to send this demand signal for SAF and become even more sustainable.”


Aircraft: Three Gulfstream G600s

Base: Headquartered at Atlanta’s Fulton County Airport – Brown Field (FTY)

Personnel: 14 pilots, four maintenance managers, four cabin program managers, three dispatchers, five leadership staff and two quality and facilities staff.

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