Group Editor Marty Kauchak provides insights from Spirit Airlines and LATAM Airlines Group on a well-trained organization supporting a passenger’s journey – from ticket purchase through destination arrival.

A number of airlines around the globe find themselves flush with record profits and committing billions of dollars to improve their own businesses. Not lost in the flurry of activities to build and expand routes, and strengthen airlines’ standing in their markets is an underlying commitment to heighten customer satisfaction. Spirit Airlines and LATAM Airlines Group shared unique perspectives with the author on their efforts to gain customers and then retain them as dedicated, repeat passengers.

Basics and Beyond While the dust settles on recent, high profile mergers and acquisitions, airlines continue to raise their profile and vigorously compete for passenger shares in the domestic and overseas markets. At the end of the day, airlines must be able to educate the expanding flying customer base about their brands – an intriguing challenge and opportunity according to Paul Berry, a spokesman for Spirit Airlines.

From Berry’s perspective, at the core of this challenge is to close any knowledge gaps between the customer who is educated and understands how Spirit is different from other airlines, and the prospective passenger who has the misperception that all airlines are the same. “When a customer books their flight on we go to great lengths to educate them how we are different and that difference saves them a lot of money on air travel. Our customer satisfaction rate for people who book directly on is very good. However, if a first time customer books a Spirit flight on a third party travel agent site, they love us because our fares are usually the lowest on the list – but they don’t receive the important information that helps them understand how we keep those fares so low, and that we do things differently.”

For instance some passengers get to the airport and assume that Spirit’s process and policies are the same as other airlines they’ve flown – they are surprised and upset that they didn’t know the airline charges extra for bags. Berry added, “Educating our customers who don’t book on before they reach the airport is a constant challenge. We do not want to surprise someone when they don’t know about our carry-on program or that we charge for snacks on board, however our team members are trained to provide options and courteous service.”

Berry also pointed to the imperative of organization-wide training – which resonates in a special way with Spirit. Since the Miramar, Florida-based airline’s ultra-low cost model is not the norm in the US, it wants its customers educated and prepared ahead of their travel experience. The community media relations expert continued, “in order to achieve this objective we must first begin with educating our team members on our brand and our product. Every team member will hear examples throughout training on how to answer the more common customer questions relating to the ultra-low cost model of travel.” To emphasize this, Spirit has printed cards that it distributes to its team members which contain common customer questions and an example answer. “By providing our front-line staff with this tool, we hope to increase brand awareness and overall understanding of our general Spirit philosophy,” he added.

As significant, every team member receives customer service training, which focuses on Spirit’s unique brand and philosophy. A critical portion of this training is empowering the Spirit organization’s team members to express their own personality, within reasonable margins. “We find that when our team members can be themselves, the fun, friendly, relaxed ethos that have become pillars of our corporate identity, are more clearly expressed and subsequently they are received with increased credibility by our customers,” Berry noted and continued, “This means that all of our customer service agents, flight attendants and pilots are encouraged to be genuine during their announcements and interactions with our customers. This has led to many notable interactions, including a singing safety demonstration and many ‘Spirited’ announcements – pun intended.”

Bolstering the In-Flight Experience Agustín Buenaño, the In-Flight Service vice president at LATAM Airlines Group, reminded CAT that once the satisfied, prospective passenger completes the boarding process, a professional cadre of cabin crews then allows the passenger to satisfactorily continue the main part of the travel experience.

To meet these latter expectations, LATAM Airlines Group’s training continuum for its cabin crews starts with its two-month, Initial Course for all crew members who join the company. The content allows aspiring cabin crew members to learn all aeronautical safety procedures, receive extensive specialized on-board service training and train on the specific aircraft they will operate. “This course is part of the initial admissions process for LATAM Airlines Group crew members and helps define the most qualified candidates to join the company,” Buenaño added.

The carrier’s expanding training portfolio also includes the Promotion Course – Specialist Crew, for crew members in charge of the in-flight service in the airline’s Premium Business Class on wide body, long-haul aircraft as well as recurrent training courses. For this latter effort the nearly 10,000 LATAM Airlines Group cabin crew members complete ‘recycling’ courses in both procedures and safety standards, and service standards.

The airline’s additional cabin crew learning programs are highlighted below.

Technology Insertion Spirit and LATAM Airlines Group use technology to enhance their curricula’s training content.

Berry remarked that as an organization, Spirit finds that its training is most effective when it incorporates a blended approach that includes a sampling of distance learning, simulation techniques and traditional classroom lecture. “With regards to our customer service programs, we find that teaching the theory of good customer service along with effective simulation scenarios will ultimately provide the most effective training outcome for us.”

LATAM Airlines Group’s new, evolving Tablet Project for Flight Service Managers provides a data management system for the on-board cabin crew that streamlines all information required in operations in a digital format.

Under this project, the airline distributed more than 2,000 tablets to its Flight Service Managers, pre-loaded with all flight information, allowing the flight crew to collect important data related to services on board, the service provided by flight crew, and key passenger information.

LATAM reports a significant return on investment from the Tablet Project. According to Buenaño the new system streamlines and optimizes the cabin crew’s work, reducing response time for processing data from 15 days to only one day and saving more than 100,000 pieces of paper per month.

As the first airline in Latin America to implement the use of tablets for in-flight services, LATAM is expanding this technology to offer more personalized services. The second stage of this project being launched this quarter, will provide the cabin crew with more flight information, such as data for organizing pre-flight briefings, special on-board procedures, an interactive seat map with passenger information, information on catering and passenger preferences, details about frequent flyer members, and passengers that require special attention, among other items. The implementation of this technology will further streamline and optimize its in-flight services, allowing the carrier to offer its passengers more personalized service.

Buenaño added, “Thanks to this new technology, In Flight Service Managers can give feedback about each flight’s on-board service by using their tablets, allowing for quick communication regarding service difficulties or suggestions for improvement to the areas responsible for providing a solution.” Tablets further allow for nearly immediate feedback on crew member performance. The airline executive also spoke of the value of this technology thrust to his organization’s learning program. “Each tablet comes with a Monitoring and Development Guide that includes a performance evaluation of at least one crew member per flight. The results of the evaluation are sent by the tablet to the On-Board Service areas in a single day. If any gaps are detected, our objective is to signal the importance and significance of each practice and protocol to contribute to the development and training of our crew members.”

Beyond the Tablet Project, while LATAM training includes theoretical lessons, it is mainly focused on practical education through role playing exercises in its mockups, or simulators. LATAM Airlines Group has mockups in most countries where it operates that are 100% focused on training in security and services for cabin crew. Mockups are not only complete, full-scale aircraft cabins, but also include door trainers that allow for a more realistic training experience, preparing crew members for different scenarios and training purposes.

LATAM further relies on other e-learning enablers to deliver tutorial videos. Buenaño pointed out “All crew members can access an exclusive online platform (portal) to watch video tutorials and take e-learning courses. This technology allows the training of a larger number of crew members in less time and with greater efficiency. The technological platform of crew members and video tutorials are compatible with smartphones and tablets.”

Remaining in Front of the Training Curve Spirit keeps a watchful eye on its customer complaint rates and continuously strives to keep them to a minimum. To meet this goal, the airline surveys its customers immediately after their flight experience. Berry said Spirit knows it has “it right” when those metrics move in the right direction. “The customer satisfaction scores are very different depending on where the customer booked their flight. If they booked on the customer satisfaction rate is pretty high. If they booked on a third party travel agent site, it tends to be worse.”

Of little surprise, if there is a significant delay or canceled flight – which occasionally happens in this industry – customers are upset, even if the delay is not a fault of the airline (weather, air traffic control stoppage, security shutdown of the airport, etc.). “Customers still want to complain and they can’t complain to Mother Nature, and they don’t care who is at fault so they blame the airline. So we focus more on the service failure complaints (lost bags, rude employees, flight attendant spills coffee on a passenger, etc.) and not as much on complaints that are out of our control, even though all complaints are compiled the same,” Berry emphasized.

While metrics are always valued, Spirit also finds a great deal of utilization in asking its team members for feedback with regards to customer satisfaction. The airline spokesman concluded, “Training is a dynamic environment and requires a focused measurement on its effectiveness; this also means that it requires periodic changes to leverage the identified trends. Often times, we find that our front line team members identify customer service opportunities as they develop and we value the feedback that they provide us as an overwhelming opportunity to keep in front of the training curve.”

More New Content Spirit has in development course topics on how to sustain good service in a challenging environment, such as when customers are upset there is a weather delay, and finding new and interesting ways to explain its unique business model.

This February LATAM Airlines Group received its first Boeing 787-9, becoming the first airline in Latin America to operate both the B787-8 and -9. To train crew members that operate the wide body fleet in the new B787-9, the company also developed an e-learning course focused on the difference between both cabins.

During 2015 and 2016, other training will focus on the new LATAM brand culture.