Come fly with me: Aviation boss Chris Browne on her career which has reached dizzying heights
Strabane woman Chris Browne has reached dizzying heights in the aviation industry, launching a new luxury aircraft, Dreamliner. She tells Una Brankin of her amazing journey and why she still feels inspired by her late sister Ann.
She left Ireland 33 years ago, broke and unsure of her career path. But Chris Browne had a useful degree in Spanish up her sleeve, and an inspirational older sister to live up to.
Sandwiched between two brothers in the middle of a family of seven, the Strabane woman had set out on a journey which was to see her return, three decades later, as the head of Thomson Airways, at the helm of Dreamliner, the most luxurious and speedy aircraft since Concorde.
This glorious feat of engineering will soon be transporting travellers direct from Dublin to the far-flung exotics of Montego Bay and Cancun.
This morning, Chris is talking to me on the phone from Luton Airport. For those of us who associate that famous destination with the iconic Campari advert and Cockney actress Lorraine Chase, it's not the glamorous location you'd associate with the head of a high-profile, global corporation, never mind one who's at her desk before 9am and answers the phone crisply, with her name upfront and no personal assistant in the way.
Right away, it's obvious that this lady is a hands-on boss, fully in control of her operation and image. But she's good fun, too, citing shopping and shoes as two of her favourite things. As the controller of a major airline, however, she doesn't have much time for dandering around the stores, but she's always well turned out, tanned and sparkly-eyed, in a well-cut suit or some chic dress.
"I don't know what will be on my gravestone, but shoes might get a mention," she laughs. "I have to admit I like shopping, especially for shoes."
It was the Scottish-based Chris' eye for detail that has made the huge Dreamliner airship a roaring success and - for many weary frequent long-haul flyers - a godsend in the skies. The commercial world may be shrinking via the internet, but robots haven't replaced the international movers and shakers just yet, and the perfectionist Ms Browne is determined to make a comfortable and enjoyable trip for the global and the sun-thirsty adventurous travellers among us.
Long-haul travellers from Northern Ireland have to scoot down the MI to Dublin Airport next year for the pleasure of stretching their legs out in the big airy, high-tech Dreamliner, but if the demand is there, Ms Browne will make sure it will be touching down, some day, in Belfast International or George Best Belfast City airports.
"I'm totally and utterly biased, but it is a fantastic way to fly," says Chris, north west accent intact. "I brought my sister, Kathleen, on the inaugural trip to Dublin last month, and she's so nervous, she never gets out of her seat, but she said it was the best aircraft she's been on, ever. I had five nieces on, too - the youngest ones hogged the limelight for the photos of course. They're so cute."
An adoring auntie, Chris doesn't have children of her own, but, at 55, she doesn't regret it.
"Never wanted them - being in a family of seven has something to do with it, I think," she remarks. "I'm near the middle, but no, I wasn't ignored. My parents have passed on now and it's my one regret they didn't get to see the Dreamliner, but when I got the job as first female head of Iberia Airlines and Thomson, I always remember my mum saying, 'Oh, will you get a nice uniform'?
"I think she thought that I was going to be the cabin staff."
It's plain to see that the Dreamliner is this highly-driven businesswoman's gigantic baby. The 13-fleet Boeing 787 has revolutionised air travel, leaving holidaymakers more relaxed and refreshed than ever before, with comfort and well-being high on the priority list. It can also fly much further distances than similar-sized aircraft, allowing it to reach far-flung destinations without the need to refuel, as it uses 20% less fuel. Thomson Airways, the first UK airline to fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, will operate the state-of-the-art aircraft - on behalf of the tour operators Falcon and Thomson - direct from Dublin Airport to Montego Bay in Jamaica and Cancun in Mexico, starting from June 12 and 13 next year.
"My favourite thing about the Dreamliner is that it reduces jet lag, especially if you fly as often as I do," says Chris.
"It's the best physical travelling experience. There's no dryness, there's humidity in the air and the pressure at 6,000 sq ft is a lot better. And from an aesthetic point of view, when it takes off and the wings appear, it's so elegant, beautiful - and quiet. Technology can reduce the noise in everything now, even Hoovers."
She admits she shed a few happy tears when she flew some of her family, with a posse of Press and travel agents, to Dublin last month, to announce Dreamliner's 2016 new routes.
"Gosh yes, it was emotional. Here I was on this state-of-the art aircraft, with family, agents and Press - I had to pinch myself.
"It was a dream come true and a memorable day, like the UK launch in 2013."
The stylish Chris grew up in Strabane at the height of the Troubles, always aware that there had to be a better way to live - and a way out. Like many of her generation, she remembers her father, a baker, coming home from work at the end of a busy week and putting his wage packet on the mantelpiece.
"I was always pretty driven and wanted to earn my own money, and getting a good education at Queen's University, Belfast helped me on my way," she recalls. "My elder sister, Ann, was a strong influence on me. She was a big part of the one-man-one vote campaign of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement; then she went to Chile to support the people suffering under the Pinochet regime. She was always trying to help people. She was such an inspiration."
A highly regarded international trade unionist, Ann Browne died of cancer aged 50, at the end of January 2000. Chris followed in her footsteps, attending Mount Carmel grammar school in Strabane, and studying Spanish at Queen's.
Diagnosed with bone cancer in 1991, Ann later explored techniques which would let her manage the experiences of illness and death, finding particular help in the methods of the American oncologist Dr Carl Simonton.
According to her obituaries, Ann made friends from all over the world, and, until the very end, she followed the progress of the Northern Ireland peace process, planned future holidays, and sent Christmas cards. After her death, her family received messages from the workers she had supported in Peru, former Chilean, Uruguayan and Argentinian political refugees, and trade unionists in Finland, Japan, Brazil, Germany, and South Africa, recalling her commitment and political skills, her capacity for hard, constant work, and the trust she inspired; as well as her humour, charm, kindness and her joy in life.
Those who knew her will always remember her hearty laugh, which her younger sister has, too. And although Chris describes her work as a 365 day job, she makes time for fun.
"About four or five years ago, I got my friends from primary school together - I didn't think it would work out, but if someone says no, it makes me more determined; there must be something in the water in Strabane.
"They all turned up and we didn't stop laughing the whole time," she says, fondly.
"They came over to my house in Scotland and then we met in Letterkenny. I don't get home as much as I'd like to, but when I do, I love to get to Donegal, every time. I love Errigle."
When she's not flying, Chris can be found sailing on her husband Alastair Thompson's boat off the rugged Scottish coast.
"I also spend a lot of time on the phone to friends and family," she laughs. "I like chatting, as you can tell."
She does enjoy talking, especially about her beloved Dreamliner, the best thing in the air since Concorde, according to aviation experts.
"I flew on Concorde several times - it was a marvellous experience, breaking the sound barrier, and I'll never forget the pilot telling us to look up, out of the windows, and it was the total darkness of outer space. No-one got that close before, except astronauts.
"But it didn't have the comfort factor," she can't resist adding. "The Dreamliner is so much better."
Launching a high-flying career
- Chris Browne has over 25 years of experience in the travel sector
- She holds the post of chief operating officer for TUI Aviation following 10 years as managing director for Thomson Airways. She is now responsible for a fleet of 57 aircraft and a team of 5,000 people
- She was previously the youngest and first female general manager for Iberia Airways
- Chris has led the merge of Thomsonfly and First Choice Airways into one airline - something she achieved in the space of just nine months
- In July 2011, Chris was honoured by the University of Ulster and received the degree of Doctor of Science (DSc) for management leadership
- Chris was awarded an OBE in the 2013 New Year's Honour's list and in April 2014 accepted membership into the British Travel Industry Hall of Fame
- In June 2014, Chris became chief operating officer for TUI Aviation