Rachel Shulman, one of CMT’s Air Service Development Directors, helps clients and the communities they serve maximize their economic potential by optimizing air service. Her extensive experience includes comprehensive air service development plans, community engagement, five-year plans, passenger catchment and leakage studies, long-term traffic forecasts, and airport comparative analyses. She uses a strategic, analytical approach to tell the broader story of her clients to airlines. Rachel holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in economics and is an active member of CMT’s Quality of Life Community of Practice. She joined the CMT team in 2020 and is based in Dallas.
How did you first become interested in the discipline of air service development?
I went to grad school for economics, and right after graduation, I was hired at Southwest Airlines in a finance job doing budgeting. In that role, I met people in the Network Planning department and started having conversations with them about economics could help them plan the route network. Network Planning is basically an airline matching supply to demand, so it is very much in the vein of fundamental economics. It’s scheduling airplanes, planning routes between cities, strategizing who you want to be in a market (i.e. home-town carrier, international carrier, etc.), and then watching your route and financial performance come in every month – so you get to see the immediate rewards of your work. I fell in love with it and moved into the discipline.
Once I moved into Network Planning, I had meetings with lots of airports and air service development consultants. Over time, my interest in air service development grew, so when relocating for my husband’s job, it was the perfect opportunity to switch sides of the table and become an air service development consultant.
There are a lot of aviation-geeks out there who, as kids, were building to-scale models of the airports or collecting schedule books from airlines, when those were still a thing. That wasn’t me – I fell into aviation, Network Planning, and air service development and just happened to love it. I’m more of an aviation-romantic. I love being part of an industry that connects people to some of the biggest moments in their lives: big business deals, bucket-list vacations, meeting new grandbabies, weddings, all the things; I love being a part of that.
What kind of work do you find to be most fulfilling, and why?
For me, it’s those big projects that only come along every so often and tend to make the biggest impact. They are usually the hardest – in terms of making me stretch my capabilities, as well as challenging my endurance. But after the fact, they are very rewarding, and you get to see the impacts of your work over the course of years.
For instance, I led the analysis that prompted Southwest to build a Federal Inspection Facility at Houston Hobby Airport. This enabled them to start their international hub in Houston. I was also part of the team that informed Southwest’s decision to purchase AirTran. More recently, at CMT, I did the demand and market analysis for a small airport in a major metro area. That work informed the airport’s ultimate decision to move forward with building a passenger terminal, the results of which won’t come to fruition for a few years.
What role does storytelling play in your work?
There are only so many airlines and planes (and now pilots) out there, but there are far more airports to fly to that are vying for those flights. So, to pique an airline’s interest as an airport and as an air service development consultant talking to those airlines, you have to have good numbers and you have to be able to translate those numbers into a compelling story to move you up the priority line in front of other airports.
This kind of storytelling is rooted in presenting realistic information based on reliable sources. It’s often about finding that information that goes beyond passenger numbers and average fares – be it economic trends or passenger-leakage numbers or the amount of hotel rooms being built in an area. From there, it’s critical to connect the dots between the data and what it could mean for putting passengers in seats. What story is the data telling about how an airline’s performance could improve by launching service in your airport? How would a change in service help the airline access a new passenger segment – and what would that mean for a competitor targeting the same passenger segment?
Having that balance of the two – storytelling backed by numbers – is vital to serving clients, their communities, and the airlines well.
How did you get involved in CMT’s Quality of Life Community of Practice (CoP)?
As part of my role on the air service development team, I also do economic impact studies and various pieces of economic analysis. The community of practice was looking to bring on this skill set, so the group’s leader, Cassie Reiter, invited me to join.
I’ve been part of the group ever since and try to contribute work that helps us better understand a community’s population, socioeconomics, and regional context. My work also helps the communities we serve understand the return on investment (ROI) of infrastructure projects and provides them with economic information that can be used to help them get these projects funded.
What do you value most about CMT’s company culture?
I appreciate CMT’s client-centric business culture. Our leadership sees the value in – and promotes – providing long-term benefits to clients, versus only prioritizing short-term gains. That helps me and my team build better relationships with clients and build the brand in our niche of the industry.
In addition, I am thankful for my leadership’s trust and their investment in expanding my skill set into economic impact work. Though I have been in aviation for 15 years now, economic impact analysis is relatively new to me. I really appreciated the opportunity to learn something new and put it to use almost immediately. That has been gratifying.
Finally, I just value my team. Nobody operates in a bubble, and my positive experience at CMT has everything to do with my team, my leadership, and their support.