Editor’s Note: This story is part of a collection of stories featuring women in aviation. These stories are in recognition of Girls in Aviation Day on September 26 sponsored by Women in Aviation International. Through these stories, learn about their early motivation and continued passion for TSA’s mission.
Christine Assili’s career progression is far from a smooth, straight line. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks abruptly ended her solid, 15-year career at US Airways and left her to reassess employment options. What came next for the Director of Production for TSA’s Strategic Communications and Public Affairs office is a lesson in perseverance, guts and fortitude.
Did you have a role model who inspired you to pursue a career in aviation?
My father was a Director of Sales for Sabena Airlines, the national airline of Belgium during the golden age of passenger travel in the 1960s. Air travel was glamourous. I wanted to follow in his footsteps and be just like him. His career, although short-lived, was a successful one. He passed away in 1979 but his reputable hard work and diligence as an immigrant is a lesson that remains with me.
Did you encounter career road blocks or challenges because of your gender?
My first leadership role was a ‘foreman’ in the maintenance department at US Airways, a telling sign of where we were culturally. Back then, a flight attendant was called a stewardess and the flight deck was known as the cockpit. The foreman position was the most challenging and rewarding experience of my career. I led by example and met gender challenges by respectfully listening to all facts in any circumstance and by being fair.
Despite experiencing inequities, I’ve made the most of each situation and learned a lot. I’m grateful for my mentors who believed in my abilities and supported my work. They modeled what a genuine, ethical and confident leader is and pointed me in the direction of discovering my unique style and authenticity. My thanks to many of my mentors along the way, but especially Steve Borzilleri, Jeff Evers, Trygve Reeves, Nancy Nykamp, Kelli Ann Burriesci, and Jerry Spero for invaluable life lessons.
How did your passion for aviation lead you to TSA?
My government career began after mass layoffs in the airline industry. I was a customer service manager at US Airways on 9/11. That day, over my earpiece, a panicked stricken tower was trying to locate all aircraft, then suddenly a ground stop occurred. I had to inform a crowded Philadelphia International Airport concourse that all flights had been cancelled. Keeping my composure, my team and I cleared all gates in record time. At that moment, I knew that this was bigger than any of us and that the industry would never be the same.
It was a dark time for the nation and for me, but I was determined to put my airline experience to use in a related field. That’s when I started my government career with the Federal Aviation Administration as a Special Agent, now known as a Transportation Security Inspector. It was a transition I loved because I knew the operation like the back of my hand, so regulating the industry and understanding the operation came naturally to me.
I’ve been privileged to serve in Security Operations, Policy and Programs, Intelligence & Analysis, and now with Strategic Communications & Public Affairs. As part of leadership development, I served on two detail assignments at DHS and the FBI/Terrorist Screening Center. Along the way I obtained a B.A. and M.B.A.
Academically, I’m encouraged to see emphasis placed on early education STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] programs. It’s important that our daughters have their curiosity sparked in these academic disciplines as young as possible. It’s also wise to show our sons the benefits of diversity in the workforce and girls having fair opportunities in industry leadership roles.
In my 19th year at TSA, I found my curiosity sparked by an invitation for continued growth. Starting October 1, I’ll take a seat in a year-long White House Leadership Development Program, proving once again that career progression isn’t always a straight line.