From Old School to New School

One of the many challenges airlines face, especially in North America, is maintaining and retaining a well-trained frontline customer-service staff. Many factors contribute to this challenge across the industry. It starts with recruitment and has been driven by the changes that have shaped the industry primarily since deregulation in the late 1970s.

For a long time, frontline customer-service jobs were highly sought after, and they promised competitive wages, great medical and retirement benefits, and the allure of access to travel. These frontline positions do not require college degrees or specialized skills. Anecdotally, when speaking to industry veterans, it is common knowledge that “you needed to know someone” just to get a foot in the door.

Prior to deregulation, airlines were able to better forecast revenues, and they had a better handle on profits. They were able to compete for employees at the higher end of the spectrum, thus attracting more career-minded individuals. As a result, hiring and retention was much less of a wild card for airlines.

The industry has evolved during the last 30 years, and the volatility in the economics of operating an airline has been greatly redefined. What has that translated to from a frontline customer-service employee perspective? Lower wages, tiered pay scales, reduced benefits and elimination of pension plans. These are just a few of the changes that have led to airlines needing to target a different type of candidate for potential employment.

Difficulties Retaining Front-line Employees

In previous years, airline jobs were considered somewhat glamorous because of their competitive wages, exceptional health and retirement benefits, and unlimited travel privileges. That has changed as the instability of the financial side of operating an airline has been seriously redefined. For frontline customer-service staff, that translates to lower wages, tiered pay scales, reduced benefits and elimination of pension plans, making it difficult for airlines to achieve employee retention.

As a result, they have been forced to increase their recruiting efforts and implement recruiting strategies to support an almost-continuous hiring cycle. They are also targeting and attracting individuals who are not necessarily as career minded or possess the same level of skills as those of the previous generation.

The competition today for candidates is also at a different point in the spectrum. Airlines are competing for potential employees in industries such as retail and fast food. Potential employees view a position at an airline fundamentally in the same way, especially when looking at the entry-level wages. Although there is still the allure of free or reduced-rate travel, the unfortunate reality is that a vast number of entry-level employees may have the ability to take a free flight but cannot afford the costs associated with spending time at their destination.

The restrictiveness of air travel of years past due to costs has changed as this generation is accustomed to having access to inexpensive travel whether it is offered through low-cost or traditional carriers. Additionally, potential airline employees today have to undergo a much greater degree of scrutiny, having to agree to background checks with a long list of disqualifying categories as well as pre-employment drug screenings and, in some cases, ongoing random drug screenings after being hired. Generally, these requirements are regulatory in nature, but they still can dissuade potential candidates from looking at a job with an airline.

A byproduct of these changes is the way training for frontline employees has evolved. In the past, airlines invested heavily in training new customer-service employees. It was not unusual for the new-hire training cycle to take six weeks, especially for the airport environment where new employees would be trained to accomplish check-in, ticketing, gate functions and baggage service.

The systems being used then were almost exclusively in “native” environments, which required students to learn and memorize long, cryptic entries. The airline mentality at that time was to train new employees thoroughly to produce well-qualified customer-service professionals that would remain with the airline for the long term.

Back then, employee retention levels were quite high, and the initial investment in training costs and time was justified because the return on investment paid dividends over the long term.

Changes In Airline Recruiting

As a result of decreased employee retention, it has become necessary for airlines to step up their recruiting efforts and incorporate recruiting strategies to support a near-constant hiring cycle. As such, they are targeting prospects who may not possess the same skill sets as those of past generations.

With time, and as the industry evolved, airline revenues have become less predictable, expenses continue to rise, and as a general rule, airlines have become much more susceptible to greater variables, both within and outside of the industry. As with every other area of the business, airlines have had to evaluate and make changes to their training strategies to best achieve their desired results.

With employee retention levels on the decline, recruiting efforts have become ongoing as the profile of the workforce changes. To maintain staffing levels, the training cycle has also become ongoing rather than being conducted on an as-needed basis. The need for new employees to become field-ready in a shorter timeframe drives a need for compression of the training cycles while still providing an acceptable level of proficiency.

Additionally, the profile of the customer is changing. Customers have been and are becoming increasingly comfortable with technology, and they desire the ability to be more self sufficient throughout the travel experience. This begins at the inception of making a flight reservation, through the airport experience and to the end of their journey.

As such, influences continue to be introduced to the airline business model, and airlines need to develop tools and design training curriculums that will support their changing paradigm. These new tools need to provide a certain level of efficiency. In addition, the associated employee training to support these tools needs to evolve. At the most basic level, the training cycle needs to be reduced so there is a greater amount of total training cycles. This model will best accommodate the continuous recruiting and hiring efforts that have now become the norm for most airlines.

As these changes became more significant, airlines and airline systems providers started to look for ways to simplify processes for frontline employees. Ticketing templates and stored fares eventually phased out hand-written fare ladders and the official airline guide (OAG) fare book. Graphical user interfaces, such as the Sabre® Qik® Solution, were developed and ran on top of the native system to make transactions for frontline employees easier.

For Sabre Airline Solutions® the eventual development and distribution of the Interact interface (a tool within SabreSonic® Customer Sales & Service), and Sabre® Red™ for travel agents, has now eliminated the need for frontline airline reservations and airport employees, or travel agents, to have any need to access the native system. Such advancements have greatly reduced the complexity of the training required for frontline employees as well as the time in the training cycle.

Today, a new-hire training class for reservations or airports can be completed in as few as two to three weeks, allowing airlines to reduce the training cycle by an average of 50 percent or more. Airlines are therefore getting new hires on the reservations floor or behind the counters much quicker to backfill vacancies that are created due to the higher levels of turnover that has become the norm.

Shorter, On-going Training Cycles

With a decrease in employee retention levels as the industry has changed and evolved, airlines no longer put employees through extensive training cycles with the idea of retaining them for the long term. Rather, training cycles have become ongoing as opposed to being conducted on an as-needed basis. With the need to train new hires in a shorter timeframe, many airlines have condensed their training cycles while still ensuring a suitable level of competence.

Airlines have also realized a savings in the cost of training per employee, although that is somewhat offset by the increase of the amount of new employees that need to be trained.

As outside influences continue to impact the airline industry, airlines will have to continue to evolve their business models and look for ways to maintain and develop efficiencies while reducing expenses. Frontline labor for airlines is usually the No. 2 expense, only surpassed by fuel costs. Around the world, many models have been adopted that claim to represent industry best practices, including:

  • Outsourcing frontline labor to vendors,
  • Specializing employees so they are only required and trained to perform a very focused task,
  • Adding automation to reduce the overall number of frontline employees who are required to support reservations centers or the airport operations.

Regardless of which approach an airline adopts, there will always be a requirement to train frontline employees. The quest for both airlines and their business partners, such as Sabre Airline Solutions, is to continue to develop applications and methodologies that will help increase efficiencies while simultaneously maintaining the need for proficiency in customer service and efficiency with revenue management and operational integrity.

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