Nate Woods: Facilitating Growth of the Aviation Industry in Africa

Nate Woods
Photo credit: GE Aviation

A PhD candidate at Antioch University’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change, Woods’s research study focuses on identifying how engine manufacturers effectively engage with airlines in Africa.

Woods, who lives in Ethiopia, started as a field service engineer supporting Ethiopian Airlines and smaller airlines in sub-Saharan Africa and who is now a senior customer support manager for Ethiopian Airlines and all North Africa, primarily Royal Air Maroc, EgyptAir, and Air Algérie.

His impressive career stems from his childhood in Indiana, where he lived in a house on his grandfather’s farm. His father, he said, worked in the corporate world.

“During summers I worked with them in the field and developed an appreciation for mechanical tasks like engine repair,” said Woods. “I was introduced to business and economics by my dad. He traveled a lot for work. I remember going with him to the airport and being fascinated by airplane engines.”

He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and his master’s in business administration, all from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Before coming to GE, he worked at Rolls Royce as a high-pressure turbine design engineer. While earning his BS and MS he worked for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton as a research engineer. His master’s thesis focused on the uses of vortex generator jets to improve low-pressure turbine efficiency in aircraft engines.

Woods began his career with GE in 2008 as a CF6 diagnostics fleet manager. “The CF6 is one of the product lines GE manufactures and supports,” said Woods. “We monitor operational data sent to us from the airlines, diagnose technical issues, and recommend maintenance to be performed for airlines around the world.”

In 2014, he moved to the field service organization, where he served as a field service engineer, supporting Ethiopian Airlines and many smaller airlines in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. “I managed the technical program,” he said of the engineering position. “I made sure our products performed well.”

Through that role, he said, he saw some of the smaller airlines needed support. He took it upon himself by coordinating all support functions for these smaller airlines in Africa in addition to his work with the larger airlines.

Woods said he has a passion for business development in Africa, where he has lived for the past five years. “From an aviation perspective, it’s a challenging region,” he said.

He listed some of the challenges in the African airline industry: restrictions in foreign currency exchange make it difficult for airlines to repatriate revenue; weak and unstable currency results in significant increases in operational costs; and governments with protectionist policies make it difficult to operate between countries, to name a few.

After completing his MBA, he had the desire to earn his PhD and found Antioch University’s PhD in Leadership and Change. “It was low-residency, something that I could accommodate in my busy schedule,” he said. “Plus, the program had a great reputation. There are a number of graduates in well-known leadership positions.”

A customer expressed to him recently that they received superior-quality support from him, better than any other OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer).  “I found in literature review a number of consultant groups and think tanks have said airline safety is one of the biggest hurdles aviation in Africa has to overcome to grow more rapidly and meet expectations,” he said. “I thought about whether my job affects airline safety, and I realized it does. I work with airlines to make sure engines are operating as they should.”

He saw his support could help the airline in this operation. “Then I thought about what makes my support better than others in his position,” he said.

Those questions he asked himself inspired the topic of his dissertation. “I investigated what are the critical elements of successful engagement between engine OEMs and airlines in Africa,” he said. He took a close look at the engagement between OEMs and airlines as a process for performing tasks that are recommended by the OEM or are required by regulatory authority, and he worked to gain clarity on how to perform those tasks properly.

He used a Systems Analysis approach, which is a process for studying an activity to understand elements, interconnections, and outcomes. To better understand the critical elements of that process, he conducted interviews with 14 aviation professionals working in technical roles for airlines in Africa.

“The faculty at Antioch are very encouraging,” he said. “It’s not about checking a box and completing an assignment – it’s about what you’re learning. You’re pushed to do better. In a way, you’re setting the scene to push yourself.”

He credits his committee chair, Dr. Mitch Kusy, methodologist; Dr. Elizabeth Holloway, and Dr. Rajiv Abhimanyu Bissessur, content advisor, for his success in the program. Kusy follows up very intensely, said Woods, always making sure he is making progress. Holloway is always available, he added, and challenges him to understand what the data is saying. Dr. Bissessur is an expert on the airline industry in Africa and is willing to share his experiences and knowledge with him.

Woods, who will graduate from the program in 2020, values the opportunity to learn more about the airline industry, which he considered a great need.

“I want to somehow improve and grow the airline industry in Africa and make contributions in positive change,” he said. “When everyone is contributing, it makes me feel it’s not just me earning my PhD – it’s something we own together.”