More than 25 years of working together at BMI have flown for husband and wife whose career choice still leaves them walking on air.
“He walked into the room for an interview”. “She walked out without speaking and didn’t offer me so much as a cup of coffee”.
That’s how Karen and Stuart Duckett remember their first meeting over 25 years ago — and the rest is history.
Married for more than two decades, the couple have put in over 50 years combined service with airline British Midland International (bmi), the overall sponsor of this year’s Belfast Telegraph Business Awards.
Karen Duckett is bmi airport manager at George Best Belfast City Airport, clocking up 27 years. Engineer Stuart Duckett is bmi station manager with 25 years’ service. There is excitement at the airline following the relocation of bmibaby to City from Aldergrove, almost 10 years after the main bmi operations moved to the east Belfast airport. A new service to London Stansted is also about to begin.
A Different career path
But Mrs Duckett could have had a very different career path — and might have ended up as a white-suited crime scene investigator.
“I studied chemistry at Jordanstown and wanted to become a forensic scientist,” she said.
“But there were no openings and I was considering going to England when my mother suggested I apply for a job at British Midland, which at that time operated from Belfast International Airport, flying to Heathrow.
“I started out at check-in, then went to dispatch, then duty manager, and took up the role of airport manager for bmi in 1997.
“To be honest, it was the best place to start — check-in staff see anything and everything, all walks of life, all situations, and it prepares you for all eventualities.”
Mr Duckett has worked all over the world in aircraft maintenance, starting out at RAF Aldergrove and moving to RAF Kemble before travelling to Saudi Arabia to work for the Royal Saudi Air Force.
Then came a move to the USA with Lear, on to Oman, and then back to Belfast after he decided to swap working on military aircrafts for a career on the civilian side of the airfield, joining British Midland.
“I went in to do the interview and met eyes with Karen,” he said.
“She walked straight past me without speaking and didn’t offer me so much as a cup of coffee — but we laugh about it now!” Mrs Duckett’s day, in her own words, can cover just about anything. Her husband can be called to fix an airplane seat one minute, or oversee an engine change, and they are both on call 24/7.
“I do anything and everything,” said Karen.
“Making sure the right guys are working on the right jobs, a lot of fixing the de-icing equipment — what with the recent extreme temperatures particularly this winter — radar equipment, even down to the tiniest little things.
“We have, and always will, put safety first at bmi — there is a lot of expertise involved in making sure passengers have the safest journey possible.” Mrs Duckett added: “I have a lot of meetings, I have a lot of travel to Heathrow, and in fact I sometimes have to travel to the other side of the world to advise other bmi operations.”
Last year was one of the most challenging on record for the airline industry and Belfast was not left untouched.
“I know people say in many jobs that you never know what is going to happen from one day to the next. There are so many different scenarios to deal with, but last year just took it to the next level,” she said.
“The volcanic ash cloud was just something else. It was a minute-by-minute situation because no one had ever experienced anything like that before.
“We thought we’d seen it all… and then the snow came. And then the announcement that bmibaby was going to follow us from Belfast International to the City — there’s never a dull moment. It’s like a whirlwind and you just have to go along with it. The move of bmibaby from Belfast International has made things a lot easier, having things under one roof — especially for Stuart, who was being called back and forth for maintenance a lot.”
There have been high points and low points over the years.
Ups and downs
The 1989 Kegworth air disaster was a difficult time for all bmi staff, when a flight from Heathrow to Belfast crashed as it tried to make an emergency landing at East Midlands Airport. Out of 126 people on board, 47 were killed. Even now, events which happen at the other side of the world have an impact on the Belfast operation.
“I spent a lot of time making calls and checking records following the Moscow airport blast last week,” said Karen.
“It’s important to find out if any passengers from Belfast were on a connecting flight and what implications any incidents might have on security here.”
The Ducketts enjoy working in such close proximity. Mrs Duckett said: “Our offices are right next door but we do work in different fields.
“The kids do get annoyed sometimes and say ‘will you please stop talking about planes’, but working in the industry we understand when the other says, ‘this situation has happened and I have to work late tonight’. “I think working in the aviation industry is addictive. It gets in your blood, it’s a way of life.”
Mrs Duckett said bmi expects to bounce back after a difficult period for aviation.
“Our loads post-Christmas are excellent and we are looking forward to a busy half-term break. There were issues beyond our control — the ash cloud, the weather — but we did our best and the customers were very understanding and the skills of our staff certainly helped us cope,” she said.
“Going into 2011 we are also seeing a lot of passengers booking onward connections with bmi.
“With all the issues we have experienced in the last few months, customers are realising that, unlike other carriers, we offer full protection in the case of cancellations or other upheaval.
“And with all the upheaval that has happened, customers are realising that for not a huge difference in price, they are fully protected and will not be left in the lurch.”
With their enthusiasm and obvious love for the job, it’s hard to believe how long the couple have been working in the same business.
Mr Duckett said: “The time has just flown in.
“It seems like I have only been working five minutes.”
His wife added: “I am a great believer in fate. As well as the fact that I met my husband, I know I just wouldn’t have been cut out to be a forensic scientist.”