The Journey: Operation Crossover

Comair Limited‘s Change-Management Initiative Supported Huge Technology Cutover

In 1946, Commercial Air Services (now known as Comair) began operating Fairchild UC-78 aircraft as a charter service to some of the most remote places in Africa. Since then, it has grown organically, from offering its first scheduled service in 1948 with a new Cessna model 195 to entering the main domestic routes in 1992 with Boeing 737-200 and Fokker aircraft. It currently carries an average of 4.8 million passengers a year on its Boeing 737-300, 737-400 and 737-800 aircraft.

Comair underwent major changes in 1996 when it became a franchise partner with British Airways. At that point, Comair became “British Airways Comair”, and it took on the colors and livery of British Airways International. The next major step was launching South Africa‘s first low-cost carrier,, in 2001.

Around the same time, it launched the Comair Training Centre, which provides operations training for the Boeing B737 family of aircraft for both local and international flight deck aircrew, cabin crew and flight operations personnel. Adding to its innovative nature, Comair launched its own catering unit, Food Directions, in 2012.

For close to 70 years, Comair has provided a product and service of consistent value, reliability and professionalism with an aviation record of 67 consecutive years of operating profit. Today, the organization employs more than 1,800 employees across southern Africa, serving 10 cities with both its British Airways and brands. It has a reputation of quality and passion for service that will ensure it continues to play a major role in the South African aviation and travel industries.

Comair Brands

With a workforce of more than 1,800 and service to 10 cities with its British Airways and brands, Comair carries approximately 4.8 million passengers a year on its Boeing 737 family of aircraft.

Time For Change

Having grown organically, Comair had a number of systems that had been “cobbled together,” with which it was operating its business. After a strategic review of the business in 2010, the airline‘s leadership team elected to implement new technology to replace the previous jumble of systems (specifically to the operations). This allowed for streamlined operations and better cost control.

Sabre Airline Solutions® was selected to provide advanced technology specific to Comair‘s needs. The objective was to enhance and streamline the organization‘s operational and reservations booking systems by applying industry best practices and processes through the new technology. The technology company‘s Software as a Service implementation methodology was chosen with the view that it would assist with growth opportunities and scale to support future strategic initiatives.

The new platform would deliver benefits such as:

  • Integrated systems,
  • Improved customer experience,
  • Integration with third-party systems,
  • An opportunity to enhance and grow its distribution footprint,
  • Grow its revenue.

After a careful review of the initial implementation plan, the leadership team appointed an internal program delivery executive with the mandate to deliver the solution at an enterprise level. He, along with his team, quickly realized that great systems do not make organizations great. It takes informed, skilled and engaged staff with access to robust tools.

As Comair embarked on the largest change in its history — the transition to a new platform for its reservations booking engine, staffing and operational control systems — commonly used models of change were found to be limiting. A technological transformation of this magnitude may create procedural, attitudinal and behavioral issues among organizational members, resulting in decreased levels of efficiency and customer service.

To minimize the impact on the corporate culture and climate, New York-based gothamCULTURE was retained to help develop a change-management strategy. gothamCULTURE, a leadership and organizational development consulting firm, focuses on identifying the underlying causes of business obstacles and assists executives in developing and implementing action plans at the right time to ensure that clear and measurable results are achieved. It assists clients with a variety of issues including improving leadership effectiveness, developing strategy, managing team dynamics and transforming culture.

In addition, a Comair change and communications manager with a strong marketing and communications background collaborated with gothamCULTURE throughout the change-management program.

Culture Analysis

A clear understanding of the internal dynamics and issues already present within Comair was critical to design and execute a meaningful change plan. Interviews were conducted by gothamCULTURE with all members of the leadership team as well as focus group discussions with all departments. The discussions focused on exploring high-level themes, specifically:

  • General perceptions around the new technology partner,
  • Current corporate culture and dynamics,
  • Leadership issues and challenges,
  • How change had been dealt with in the past and the insights that could be gained from these previous change processes.

Input and recommendations for the effective implementation of the pending transition to the Sabre Airline Solutions platform was obtained from all staff involved in this phase. Findings from the diagnostic survey indicated:

  • There was general skepticism about the overall project.
  • The vision and strategy of Comair leadership was unclear to many of the employees.
  • There was general lack of understanding of how Sabre Airline Solutions technology aligned with the overall strategic direction of the organization.
  • General communication across the organization was lacking.
  • Levels of staff engagement were poor.
  • The impact of a misaligned leadership manifested in lack of collaboration and integration across businesses.

General findings suggested that the prevailing culture was:

  • Innovative and creative,
  • Focused on safety and customer service,
  • In transition from a family business to a professionally run organization,
  • Change averse,
  • Inconsistent.

The high predominance of long-serving staff members had both a negative and positive impact. There was loyalty and commitment to the organization and high levels of brand identification; however, the challenge was one of change fatigue and change averseness as a result of excessive change during the past few years.

In spite of numerous challenges, the overall nature of the airline‘s people is that they are inventive and have learned to improvise, they deal with ambiguity and challenges, and they implement change. So it was important as part of the project with gothamCULTURE to create a theme that could boost employee morale and enthusiasm. A positive cultural theme that emerged was, “We make it happen.”

In addition to understanding Comair‘s culture, the consultants spent much time researching and understanding South Africa‘s culture in terms of the Sabre Airline Solutions implementation approach.

The Change Program

An organizational change of this magnitude can create challenges for people as they work to become functionally competent on new systems and processes. This transition necessitated the development of new thinking around leadership and culture as they impact the contextual environment of people who require new tools, skills and behaviors to adjust to the new systems. Fortunately, many of these risks can be mitigated by proactively and thoughtfully working to inform and engage people in the process and by taking a holistic approach to navigating this change.

The development and implementation of the integrated change program included key recommended activities over a one-year period such as:

  • Reconceptualizing and formulating Comair‘s vision, mission and strategy,
  • Formulating plans and implementation support for the Sabre Airline Solutions technology transition,
  • Creating mitigation plans and tactics to address significant or likely risks associated with the process of changing systems that can have negative employee, customer and brand impact,
  • Developing and implementing a comprehensive communications plan and tactics, including all technical and non-technical changes that need to be cascaded through high-impact and multi-touch channels to employees, customers and other stakeholders, aimed at increasing engagement and effectiveness.
  • Revisiting the role, behaviors and attitudes of Comair‘s leadership team.

The objectives of the change management program included:

  • Alignment among Comair leaders and other stakeholders about their roles during the Sabre Airline Solutions implementation,
  • An agreed upon architecture and detailed schedule for the change program,
  • Communicating strategic messaging to employees and customers to avoid confusion about multiple initiatives and communications,
  • Managing risks associated with resistant attitudes and behaviors,
  • Providing the necessary tools and resources to support employees and leaders,
  • Positively shaping opinions about critical changes by aligning the change with Comair values,
  • Sustaining enthusiasm throughout the lifecycle of the transformation,
  • Protecting and building upon the Comair culture.

From the onset, Comair and gothamCULTURE structured the change-management process from a holistic point of view, relying on internal leaders, task forces and a dedicated internal change-management team.

Operation Crossover

History tells us that the earliest bridges were simply stones that had fallen into a river, providing a walkway through the water. As time went on, bridges became more than just river crossings. These days, a bridge symbolizes a strong foundation and structure with the aim to allow one to cross over from one end to the other.

Operation Crossover, the initiative between Comair and Sabre Airline Solutions, launched with the fundamental focus on the theme of bridges — their history, what they stand for, their purpose, their strength as well as the planning and work that goes into building a strong bridge.

Operation Crossover is about the journey and the experience Comair had while crossing the bridge to a new mindset as well as a smarter and better way of working. Comair was building a bridge between an old way of working with old equipment, systems and processes to a new and better way of working with new equipment, systems and processes. The focus was based on five pillars:

  1. The right price in the market (pricing),
  2. The right equipment (new aircraft),
  3. World-class systems (Sabre Airline Solutions),
  4. Operationally effective (processes),
  5. A streamlined business (policies)

These five pillars acted as the structure and foundation for the bridge Comair was building.

Sabre Airline Solutions served as one of the main pillars in the structure as well as the blueprint to help Comair get to the other side. The technology partner was the catalyst for a great change for Comair and the voice of possibility that included ingenuities, including:

  • Leadership visibility,
  • Change agents,
  • Maintaining clarity,
  • Interactive and fun communication tools,
  • Employee feedback,
  • Leadership development and training.

Leadership Visibility

In spite of a misaligned leadership team and, in some instances, detachment from the field, there seemed no better way to get the message out to the frontline than to actually get leaders out to the frontline. To facilitate this, Comair Limited Chief Executive Officer Erik Venter visited all Comair sites to explain how the implementation fitted within the strategy of transitioning from a family-run business to a professionally run operation.

Venter and his colleagues charged with the new technology implementation spent time crafting the strategy using images and narrative to explain the journey ahead. Armed with a formal visual representation of the strategy, Venter and the core team from Sabre Airline Solutions met with Comair employees across the organization to introduce Operation Crossover.

As these engagements continued, employees began to see the bigger picture of how Sabre Airline Solutions technology would ultimately fit into the broader Comair strategy. Venter and the team talked about the global airline industry and the overall plan for implementation, focusing on how the new systems would benefit the organization and, most importantly, how it would impact each and every individual.

Change Agents

Change Agents, as part of the change-management team, assisted in the roll-out of the change program under the guidance of the change and communications manager. The team was nominated with the help of team leaders. No individual was selected based on seniority. Instead, the selection was based on interest shown, dedication and the desire to contribute to the process. The change-management team included individuals representing a cross section of the company.

Change Agents served as eyes and ears on the ground, assisted with internal communications and helped execute the change-management plan in support of the overall Sabre Airline Solutions technology implementation. Change Agents were either identified as part of the “go-to” team or Operation Crossover ambassadors.

The go-to team played a functional role by answering/finding the answers to specific questions from their colleagues, while the Operation Crossover ambassadors served as the voice, eyes and ears of the employees and ultimately determined the mood, understanding, acceptance or rejection toward the change as well as identifying any potential risks.

Maintaining Clarity

While the teams appreciated the marked leadership presence that accompanied the change initiatives, through no fault of their own and despite the excitement, they still did not quite understand why the fuss was being made or the details around what exactly Sabre Airline Solutions would do. It was particularly important to outline a clear and concise story giving details about the technology company, which other carriers use it, what benefits it would bring to employees and what new opportunities it would bring the airline.

In regular email and text messages about Operation Crossover, as well as updates from the CEO, Comair staff was updated about the progress of the Sabre Airline Solutions technology implementation as well as the rapid approach to cutover at strategic key milestones throughout the project.

Interactive/Fun Communications Tools

In addition to the clear accessibility of leadership, regular communication updates and an increasingly transparent business case for the transition, it was vital to the success of the initiative to capitalize on the excitement and maintain that momentum during the months of pre-Sabre Airline Solutions planning.

By creating a self-service repository (Operation Crossover-branded intranet site) of official information, employees were able to get answers to their questions, which created a sense of community around the initiative. Games to match the mood, a countdown clock and updates from training were all displayed prominently on the portal. To complement the games section on the portal, a games booklet included games that could match their mood toward change and served as a stress-management tool to ease the stress that comes with change.

Although the posted content was both encyclopaedic and dynamic, it still required the active involvement of employees, who needed to visit the site to get pertinent information. To supplement this initiative and engage employees who didn‘t proactively view the portal, messages were sent to them about key program milestones, training statistics, reminders of the benefits of transition and, of course, the number of days before the business would be changed for good.

Employee Feedback

Getting information to the frontline is a large component of any change initiative, but it is by no means the only one. Getting feedback is often more important. It is imperative that employees do not feel as if this initiative is happening to them, but rather with them.

To ensure success in this challenge, and as a cornerstone to the inclusive approach, brief staff surveys were distributed on a regular basis. These were intended to capture the mood of employees at strategic times throughout the months leading up to cutover. The adoption of these surveys increased with each successive survey, and the feedback gathered was invaluable in shaping and refining the approach.

However, simply relying on survey response rates to get the information required was not enough. Serving as a key communication channel between frontline employees and the core team, the change-management team was required to address all questions from their peers out in the operation. Not necessarily well-versed on all things Sabre Airline Solutions, they frequently went back to the core team to get the answers needed, which provided crucial insight as to how employees across the organization were feeling.

Leadership Development And Training

gothamCULTURE created a compelling narrative around the Sabre Airline Solutions implementation that was distributed to all leaders prior to launching Operation Crossover. The intent of the storyline was to provide, in common language, a summary that described what Sabre Airline Solutions is all about, dispel any myths that had been created due to the lack of official information up to this point and shed some light on the business case for change.

Comair Training Centre

Comair‘s new simulator building, completed in 2010, accommodates both an internal training department offered to Comair‘s Boeing 737 pilots, cabin crew and other flight operation personnel and an external training department for airline operators from 30 different companies.

In addition, it was important to ensure consistent delivery of messages from leadership. A specific leadership toolkit was created and distributed to all leaders and Change Agents that taught the basics of change management and how to deal with resistance in all forms. To support this initiative, a select number of leaders and all Change Agents attended a workshop with a focus on managing change.

Training the frontline staff on the new Sabre Airline Solutions systems played a crucial part in the change process. Failure to empower staff with the required knowledge and confidently embrace the change would have been detrimental to the success of the cutover to the new systems.

Comair needed to train 1,172 staff members in preparation for the cutover. The company had 10 weeks in which to achieve this task. The senior manager of learning and development, who was part of the core Sabre Airline Solutions team, knew this was a mammoth task. Champions and subject matter experts were identified to be part of the Sabre Airline Solutions train-the-trainer team. Trainers had to identify team leaders for each of the training modules:

  • Producing workshop content;
  • Designing lesson plans, user manuals and quick reference guides;
  • Facilitating classroom assessments.

Modules were staggered to ensure staff would absorb the information in digestible pieces. It would also give them time between modules to practice and process the information. Once all staff members were trained, on-the-job refresher training programs were implemented. This enabled certain changes or refinements to the content for refresher training, conducted by champions identified as strong students during classroom training. These champions acted as coaches and mentors, and while they conducted the refresher training, they became strong subject matter experts.

In addition, airport dry runs (simulations) took place at all airports, debriefings were conducted after each dry run and gaps were identified and addressed accordingly.

The Cutover

Nearly 18 months after the initial Comair discussions to embark on a partnership with Sabre Airline Solutions, Comair was ready to cutover to the new systems. The positive attitudes, commitment, support and hard work from all employees standing as a unity was a perfect example of Comair‘s culture of sacrifice, teamwork and collaboration.

The change-management efforts contributed to a smooth, successful cutover last June. It brought greater strategic understanding of the business to employees, supported faster user adoption of new systems, fostered a better understanding of its airline product offerings and served in the end as a unifying factor in that everyone felt part of the organization.

Challenges Going Forward

A key challenge for the leaders of Comair lies in their ability to optimize the strengths and talents of individuals who have emerged through this process. In addition, individuals with new skills and abilities have become extremely marketable and the challenge for Comair leaders will be to retain and grow these resources. Another challenge is to continue to keep the energy levels high, creating employee commitment and building on the unity created during cutover.

It is also not the end of Operation Crossover. Phase 2 of Operation Crossover launched shortly after the business reached a steady state, with the focus on some of the post-implementation delivery requirements, enhancements and the opportunities that the new platform provides the business.

An Overall Success

The year 2012 will always be remembered as the year when Comair embarked on one of the single biggest business transformations in its history. The transition to the new platform provides Comair with an integrated solution that will, in the medium and long term, result in greater efficiencies, improved distribution capabilities and the benefit of access to a global community, which is constantly reviewing processes and developing new products.

Much learning and development has taken place across the organization, and the competencies and skills gained through this process has been invaluable. A few uncovered gems with unique qualities and leadership potential were identified within the organization, giving Comair the benefit of employing and retaining the right person for the job and the individual with the opportunity for self growth.

In addition to implementing a world-class operating system, the change-management process has been a unifying experience for Comair. It created a company culture of collaboration and collectively moved everyone in the company toward the same objectives.

The journey continues as Comair positions itself for growth and becomes a world-class airline.

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