Start-ups can rely on tried-and-true curricula or go rogue. Here’s what Rona Gindin discovered at some new airlines.
While legacy airlines go about their business, newcomers are popping up around the world. As many as 130 airlines debuted in 2021-22 or were preparing to launch soon, according to aviation consulting firm IBA.
For cabin crew trainers, that means opportunity: It’s the ideal time to try a fresh approach to training. And so we wondered, how does an airline start from scratch? Do the folks creating new cabin crew training programs adapt what they used in past airline jobs? Contract out training to full-time training centers, which teach to the airline’s specifications? Or try something new?
Facts are facts, and safety is safety, so the core of what cabin crew members learn barely changes. Some airlines choose to reinvent the wheel, however, in terms of how they get crucial messages across to trainees. They might insist on: in-person classroom training; online, possibly interactive and/or virtual reality components; an emphasis on technical skills; or a bent toward the soft stuff – flight attendants’ feelings and learning styles.
To find out, CAT reached out to a few dozen start-up airlines. The staffs tend to be so small and busy that few had time to share their plans or programs. We did learn what to watch for, though.
Training Schools Do the Teaching
Flight training schools are an easy option for airlines that don’t have the capacity to start and run a soup-to-nuts cabin crew training program themselves. Generally, the schools have a standard curriculum, and adapt it to meet the specifics required by each airline. That might involve altering instruction to match the type of aircraft flown, and could weave in a specific airline’s service priorities and procedures. In some cases, the training schools have not only curricula but also training equipment. That means the incoming flight attendant crews can practice how to handle airplane doors, guide passengers to slides and put out fires. “We do not do any in-house trainings,” one Middle Eastern airline told us, suggesting it outsources these duties to specialists.
Young airlines tend to put experienced cabin crew members in charge of cabin crew training. “Our trainers are current flight attendants who are removed from flying status to facilitate the classroom instruction,” says Courtney Goff, spokesperson for Avelo Air, a low-cost carrier out of Houston, Texas. “In addition, members of the Avelo leadership team conduct virtual Microsoft Teams meetings with each class.” That engagement with the company’s leaders energizes trainees, she says.
Greater Bay Airlines pulls trainers from various backgrounds, focusing on their attitude, says Michelle Cheng, General Manager of Inflight Services for the Hong Kong start-up. “Training specialists and instructors are all seasoned,” she says. “Apart from technical knowledge, they have the passion to become an instructor. We see that they’ve been promoted in the past, and it’s clear that they’re devoted to their jobs.”
Scratch-Made Is an Option
At Bonza, a startup low-cost airline in Australia, the training team started from scratch in developing the cabin crew training program. The team is a mix of professionals with inflight customer experience, crew training chops and checking leads. They consulted with in-house ground instructors at Boeing and CAE, then together created the course content development and facilitation. Due to the convenient timing, they were able to implement the new flight rules about how cabin and flight crew are trained in Part 121 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations (CASR). “It has been really important that we work alongside the regulator to ensure Bonza’s training programs are compliant,” says Bonza CEO Tim Jordan.
Starter Packs Differ
Incoming cabin crew begin their training before leaving home. That can be small, light and introductory, or detailed and intense.
At Avelo Air, for instance, incoming cabin crew receive a simple welcome package. “The training packet tells them what to expect, details, location and suggestions on what to bring with them,” Goff say. All instruction is received during class, she says, and revolves around a small tablet, which is loaded with the entire Inflight Manual.
At GBA, by contrast, training begins long before in-person instruction. “The younger generation appreciates the self-learning approach, so we send a pre-learning pack for trainees to start with before Day 1 of classroom training,” says Cheng, noting that most GBA cabin crew trainees are young but have flying experience. Great thought went into the intro packet. It has a mix of video and sophisticated tech elements that are designed to send the message that “human factors” are vital in both flight attendant education and customer service. “We have one chance to engage them, to make a good impression,” she explains.
"...we want training to be an interactive experience, not boring." - Michelle Cheng, General Manager of Inflight Services, GBA. Image credit: Greater Bay Airlines.
Once cabin crew arrive for in-person training, more differences are obvious. At Avelo Air, cabin crew are taught via a combo of classroom instruction, PowerPoint presentations and hands-on drills, says Goff. More than 200 flight attendants have gone through the program thus far, and they are under watchful eyes. “Our trainees come from a wide background of experience, education and work history,” Goff says. “They do not become crew members with Avelo until they successfully complete training. During training, they are observed in their ability to work as a team, demonstrating Avelo values and, of course, successfully passing all drills and exams – written and oral.”
Avelo flight attendants do their training in Miami, Florida, classrooms equipped with tablets and also use training equipment nearby. The airline farms out CPR instruction to a specialized vendor. All the rest is done at a Boeing facility and the Pan Am Academy – emergency equipment, ditching, door drills and firefighting. All training will be moved to a new center in Orlando, Florida, in 2023.
Greater Bay Airlines is big on engagement once everyone is physically together. Early on, trainees are given assignments to come up with ideas for how to build a “safety culture” during training. “We involve them, we treat them as family,” Cheng says. “We want to know their feelings, and we want training to be an interactive experience, not boring.” Those who propose the best ideas receive a small gift. These personal touches, Cheng insists, have a huge impact on keeping cabin crew content and they build loyalty.
“Artificial intelligence is not true. It’s a robot,” she says, referring to some other airlines’ training programs. “We treasure small-group, one-on-one interactions.”
Soliciting ideas and feedback emphasize GBA’s focus on communication. “If something goes wrong inflight, that’s about human error,” she says. “The policy, knowledge and skill set are not at fault on their own; it’s usually due to execution, about why people make mistakes.” GBA therefore takes efforts to understand why people err, and finds that classroom discussion is key. “Trainees share their previous experiences. They might even cry. It helps people to touch the heart, to hear each other’s stories, to have one-on-one contact and deep conversation. That’s why we prefer classroom education over online training.”
At Bonza, in-house experts are key, yet external experts address trainee classes too. The goal: “best-in-class” trainers.
Warding Off Discontent
Especially since the global pandemic began, cabin crew members have felt unheard and unnoticed, with burnout rates high. “Flight attendants have given their all over the course of this pandemic and there is no break,” says Nastassja Lewis, founder of th|AIR|apy, a support site for cabin crew. “This added pressure has shown up as extreme burn out, exhaustion, bouts of depression, anxiety attacks, suicide, substance abuse, lack of motivation, loneliness, and financial hardships beyond comprehension and not much is being done about it.” Throughout the industry, including at WATS training sessions, flight crew trainers talk about ways to recognize flight attendants’ challenges and ease their burdens.
Some new airlines are taking targeted measures to avoid that mess. They can’t stop flight delays or cancel overnight itineraries, but they can treat recruits with respect. At GBA, that takes the form of empowering cabin crew to treat themselves well when possible, and to enjoy interaction with passengers.
“We are excited not to be a traditional airline,” Cheng says. “We emphasize to cabin crew that they should have fun. They’re free to make small talk with passengers during slow times, just like chatting in a café. And if you’re tired during flight, don’t over-do. Sit down and have a rest.” It works, she says. “The trainees are really excited!”
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