Stephanie Abeler builds aviation apps as agile and diverse as Lufthansa

By | 5 minute read | December 3, 2020

As a young woman without a background in IT, Stephanie Abeler was already disrupting things when she showed up for work three years ago.

Abeler, Lufthansa’s senior director for service factory ground operations, told Industrious that when she started her current position, she felt a bit of impostor syndrome. “I was stepping into a big role that I knew nothing about,” she said during a recent video interview from a quiet conference room inside Lufthansa’s Frankfurt operations center.

At the time there were mostly male team leaders, all of them with IT backgrounds and many years of experience. “I’m not an IT guy, so I felt like I stuck out,” she said.

And stick out she has. Abeler has continually promoted new technical and organizational solutions on her team of nearly 80—as well as promoting more diversity, bringing in more voices, views and backgrounds to IT.

Abeler’s approach is precisely the kind of engaged, energetic and empathic thinking that airlines need more than ever. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic threw the industry into crisis, carriers were already facing challenges from a parade of budget airlines and travel-tech startups.

Now, as airlines must adapt and reinvent yet again, it will take a steady, determined and above all thoughtful demeanor like Abeler’s to make it through the turbulent times ahead.

“Not only is she smart and has strong analytical skills, she is also a creative and hands-on person—she’s even designed and sewed facial masks for my whole family during COVID-19,” said Lisa Schwarz, a long-time colleague and friend who met Abeler in 2005, when they both participated in the Lufthansa International Apprenticeship program.

From flight attendant to flight ops

New handheld apps developed by Abeler’s team speed up ground operations, and thus flight times. | Photo via Lufthansa

“I considered myself, at least career-wise, as being raised by Lufthansa,” Abeler said.“I grew up in many places. I was born in Münster, a town in West Germany, but by the time I was 18, we’ve already moved five times.”

All this movement instilled a love of traveling, which took her even further afield as she grew. “When I was 15, a friend and I wanted to do a trip to Kenya,” Abeler recalled. “Everyone was like ‘Why are you going to Kenya?’…  I was like, ‘Why not?’ You can do a safari!’” She paid for the two-week trip to Africa with savings from babysitting

Wanting to travel while at college, Abeler looked for a flight attendant position. Lufthansa had a hiring freeze, so she instead opted for the apprenticeship program, even though they were operationally focused. “Back then, I didn’t know that it was incredibly hard to get in–only 18 spots for more than 2,500 applicants,” Abeler said.

When she first started at Lufthansa, Abeler realized how little she knew about aircraft and the industry. “I was kind of impressed when my colleagues would just look outside the window and were able to tell what kind of aircraft it was, how many seats it had” she said. “Then I had to learn all of that too.”

And she’s been learning ever since. “I think on average I changed my job every two to three years” Abeler said. “So, even though I’ve been with Lufthansa for 15 years, it feels like I’ve been in many different places.”

Abeler’s proudest career moment was stepping out of her comfort zone and accepting her current position in service factory ground operations. “Before, I only had a team of four people; now I have a team of almost 80,” she said. “I determined that I was not there to be changed—I was there to change things.”

“How do I change things?” she continued. “Many times, just by asking questions others might not ask.”

Refilling the “home-office glass”

New apps could help airlines like Lufthansa rebound from COVID-19. | Photo via Lufthansa

That inquisitiveness served Abeler well when Lufthansa turned to IBM iX, the interactive experience specialists, to develop a package of ground operations apps. The collaboration created three apps so far: Manage Gates, Turnaround Manager and Ramp App. While first developed by and for Lufthansa, all are now available through the IBM Aviation App Suite, with sales benefiting both companies.

“These applications have made employees’ lives easier and less stressful,” Abeler explains. “They can have all the information they need on one screen, and with one swipe—this is something they did not have before.”

Before implementing the apps, Lufthansa employees used to have to print out stacks of paper to coordinate ground operations—which by the time they printed were often no longer current. “Employees now have all the most updated information on one screen in their pocket,” Abeler said. “They don’t have to run back and forth to the printer.”

And in the COVID era, this responsiveness is even more crucial. “There are many sudden changes,” Abeler said “We don’t know what happens tomorrow. Flight schedules are changing constantly. We can’t control if a country chooses to close borders and we have new travel bans.”

Abeler wearing one of the masks she makes for family and friends.

Abeler is especially eager to find ways to incorporate new digital processes to meet the demands of these challenging times even if there’s not always budget available to do so. “It’s sort of a catch-22 situation,” she said.

Not to mention this work is largely being done from home, making team comradery and motivation especially important to Abeler. “It’s like this ‘home-office glass’—every so often it gets empty and needs to be refilled,” she said. To keep the glass full, Abeler schedules a regular virtual coffee lounge for her employees, which compensates for the hallway conversations they now all miss.

While it may be rare for someone in her generation to stick with the same employer for so long, Abeler finds the mix of stability and variety Lufthansa offers is just what she needs to keep innovating and exploring—both in IT and in the world.

“People might think I don’t like change, but as a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite,” she said.

And that’s what makes her, and Lufthansa, so ready for any changes that still lie ahead.