Operators embrace service training for corporate pilots

 - October 23, 2006, 7:41 AM

The late Randy Kennedy, who wrote a chapter or two in the book for corporate pilots in the U.S., once said, “Don’t tell anyone, but you can teach monkeys to fly these airplanes safely. The hard part of this job is acquiring the correct service mentality.”

A former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, Kennedy made the transition to corporate aviation when, in the late 1960s, he expressed interest in a post-military career with Pan Am. When he learned the airline was forming a strategic alliance with Dassault to market the latter’s Falcon business jets in North America, he liked the way it sounded better than an airline gig. Kennedy built his career–and helped shape the industry as we know it–from there.

His ego-deflating revelation addresses one of the most fundamental and misunderstood aspects of the job of corporate pilot. It also points out one of the great contradictions pilots must deal with: they are the captain of their ship–with ultimate authority–yet they fly at the pleasure of their passengers.

A spokesman for TAG Aviation said of the typical business jet passenger, “We’re dealing with the masters of the universe. They not only have it their way; they usually own the hamburger stand. That makes it a delicate tightrope to walk.”

How a company or individual pilot deals with this critical balancing act has a lot to do with the success or failure of a flight department or charter company. Sometimes it comes down to the luck of the draw, and pilots hired for their flying skills also happen to be gifted with the service temperament. Sometimes, pilots can be educated to suppress their type-A tendencies for the good of their careers. And sometimes, it just doesn’t work out at all.

Hiring for Skill…and Personality

Often an accident can be averted before the engines even get started. The TAG official recalled, “I think back to the tagline used at Executive Jet Aviation [the first aircraft-management company and precursor to today’s NetJets]. It was, ‘We don’t fly airplanes; we fly people.’ At TAG, we start even before the hiring process.”

He went on to describe a series of personality and skill assessment inventories TAG has developed over time. The company chose individual employees who were successful in their roles–pilots, mechanics, lead mechanics, managers and so on–and surveyed their attitudes about a variety of focal issues to establish a baseline. “Some of the testing was quantitative, with right and wrong answers, but a lot of it was geared toward personality assessment. And you often need different personality types, even within the same job.”

For example, TAG inventories its pilot candidates’ personality profiles, then strives to pair crews that are complementary. It is not advisable to have two pilots who are confrontational working together. Nor is it advisable to schedule two “people-pleasers” in the same cockpit, for fear that they will be less likely to challenge each other–and more susceptible to pressure from strong-willed passengers to complete flights in less-than-safe conditions.

A measure of the emphasis on service mentality has come from the FBO industry over the past two decades or so. As fuel prices have risen and competition for business jet operators’ business has become more intense, FBOs have increasingly clipped pages from the training and policy manuals of hotels, resorts and other representatives of the hospitality industry. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that Wilson Air Center of Memphis, Tenn., has topped pilots’ ratings in the last five AIN FBO surveys. Wilson is a division of Kemmons Wilson Companies–whose anchor product is the Holiday Inn chain. It shows in details as seemingly insignificant as the shiny brass baggage carryalls and the uniforms of the line staff.

When first asked about translating exemplary customer-service techniques onto pilots, Betsy Wines, lead customer service representative at Million Air Teterboro (N.J.), chuckled. In her opinion, customer service talent is innate. “You either have it or you don’t,” she said. No matter how smart someone is, Wines said, people skills are among the most difficult to teach.

She also addressed the “never say no” technique, as taught to many pilots for dealing with difficult passengers when safety issues arise. “You put it in the form of discussing options, rather than dictating terms,” she said. Richard Smith, head of the NetJets operations center in Columbus, Ohio, once described the ideal method for dealing with a flight schedule that looks doubtful. He said the pilots should keep the passengers as informed as possible, as soon as possible, and that they should always be given options for getting to the destination, rather than being told, “No, you can’t get there today.” For example, a pilot might say, “The weather is just too dangerous. We can wait until tomorrow, or we could fly you as far as Minneapolis and get you a limo or rental car for the remainder of the trip to Duluth.”

Wines’s ability to solve problems and keep customers happy likely benefits Million Air Teterboro’s charter division, Meridian Air Charter. Supporting that assertion, the recording that describes Million Air for telephone customers on hold contains the descriptive tagline, “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”

Indeed, the entire topic lends itself well to taglines and catchphrases–if only as reminders. A more substantive approach comes from hiring and training programs. TAG Aviation, for example, follows up on its hiring profile. Pilots–and many other employees–hired by TAG undergo a three-day orientation program in the company’s North American headquarters in San Francisco. The session serves not only to brief new hires on the company health plan and paperwork but also to help instill the detailed culture of service.

In addition, there is regular reinforcement in the form of an annual operations management conference. When TAG assumes management responsibility for a client’s aircraft or flight department, it designates a pilot or other official as the “client aviation manager,” responsible for regular review and updates of operations policies.

The regular meetings also address–and reinforce–policies regarding customer service. Client aviation managers sit in on presentations from professionals on service issues, team building and other client- and passenger-focus areas. The client managers are then responsible for bringing the rest of the company pilots and flight department personnel up to speed on the latest in companywide policy and procedures.

Indeed, TAG’s v-p of operations, Bob Tyler, holds credentials as a former Air Force pilot and former Delta captain, but, significantly, holds his undergraduate degree in psychology. There is temptation to remand all discussion of personality profiles to the category of psychobabble having little to do with practical day-to-day flying. Certainly, for those who have been told what they didn’t want to hear from management, the temptation is that much stronger. But for some pilots, the focus on performance and personality profiles has paid dividends.

The Right Person for the Right Mission

TAG president Jake Cartwright has said, “If we run a company that is oriented toward the satisfaction and well-being of the employee, then clients and passengers will benefit.” An example might be the GIV owner and management client for whom TAG conducted almost all the airplane’s flying under Part 91 until changes in his business situation dictated that the airplane would be placed out for charter about half its flying time.

Unfortunately, one of the pilots, a father of young children, became increasingly frustrated with the intrusions into his family life necessitated by the increase in charter flying and on-call time. TAG suggested to the aircraft owner that the pilot be reassigned to another aircraft owner, and a new pilot with a more flexible lifestyle be hired. The owner agreed, the original pilot joined a different TAG-managed flight department whose missions suited his role as a dad, and a talented pilot joined the company with the GIV.

TAG says it was the company’s employee focus that matched the right people with the right mission, and included the flexibility to adjust a situation that had changed and was no longer a good fit. The net results were better service for the client, and the company retained one good pilot and hired another.

Almost every day, pilots strike the balance between their roles as service provider and authority figure. In the end, success or failure comes down to the ability to walk that line effectively. Those who have prospered in the business are able to project respect for their customers, while commanding the respect they need to perform their jobs safely and efficiently.

Formal training programs generally come in the form of customer relations specialists who conduct regular seminars on the dynamics of the service industry, team building and strategic analysis of the personal dynamics that make up that side of the business. And in the end, just having the personality that fits the role goes a long way toward success.