Team Building: What we Can Learn From Excellent Airline Crews

People watched in awe when US Airways Flight 1549 ditched on the Hudson River on January 16, 2009. Ditchings * are rare so the question on everyone’s mind was “How did the crew manage to safely evacuate 154 passengers in minutes?” The answer is really simple “teamwork”. Some airlines are REALLY good at it. We can learn a lot about teamwork and what it takes to build an effective team from airline crews that excel.

* Ditching = Emergency landing of aircraft on water.

flightattendants2When teamwork goes smoothly, each and every passenger knows it and feels it. This is what produces airlines that consistently excel in and receive awards and recognition for exceptional service.

I have had the pleasure of flying business class and economy on Etihad Airways, Emirates, and Singapore Airlines that all excel in providing customer service and receive international recognition year after year.

I thought that I would take a stab at answering the question that has been on the minds of so many people based on my recollections as a young flight attendant and as a passenger who has travelled to 21 countries.

Long before I started my own business and long before I was involved in team building. I was a flight attendant. For 2 summers while I attended McGill University, I was a summer flight attendant. As a summer flight attendant, I flew reserve. I had scheduled work days but, on those days, I was “on call”. I never knew where I would be heading until I received the call from crew scheduling. Sometimes the call would be received the night before the flight. At other times, it would be last minute. As a reserve flight attendant, I can only think of 2 instances in which I had even met the other members of the crew before the flight. In one instance, I worked with another flight attendant who was “on course” with me. In another instance, when we landed in Chicago, a former classmate from Vanier CEGEP emerged from the cockpit. He was 2nd officer on that flight. I knew that he had been taking flying lessons and it was great to see that he had fulfilled his dream.

So, how do flight crews work so well together, ensure smooth operation and deal with emergencies even if they never met before the day of the flight? It has to do with 2 things:

  • the simulations used in the training
  • the job aids that are provided
  • the thorough crew briefing before each flight

1. The Value of Simulations

Airlines invest a lot of time and money to train new employees. The training is thorough. It focuses on take-off and landing procedures, customer service skills, meal service, bar service, emergency procedures, first aid, how to make announcements, and a lot more. The one thing that I remember most vividly from my experience at Air Canada’s flight attendant training centre is that we had numerous simulations throughout our training. We were taught how to do meal and beverage service. We practiced this service with the actual carts that we would be using over and over again until it became natural. We went to a swimming pool and participated in a simulation of a ditching. We simulated flights and the situations that we would encounter during flights. These would involve everything from pre-boarding procedures for passengers with infants to dealing with inebriated passengers. We played different roles and provided service under a variety of scenarios.

At US Airways, the annual training that each flight attendant gets has shifted in recent years from classroom teaching to more hands-on practice evacuations in full-size Airbus cabin simulators because research has shown the importance of practice drills. “Now over 80% of the day is in simulators evacuating aircraft, with very little time spent in the classroom,” says Bob Hemphill, the airline’s director of in-flight training.

US Airways gives newly hired flight attendants five weeks of training, from an introduction to the aviation industry to procedures for opening each type of door on each type of aircraft they’ll fly. The airline has a full-size Airbus cabin simulator in both its Phoenix and Charlotte training facilities, plus “door trainers” for its Boeing airplanes, so flight attendants can practice opening emergency exits under tough conditions (total darkness, billowing smoke) and evacuating cabins. In both cities, initial training includes jumping into a pool and practicing opening a life raft, helping people in and out of the raft, putting up the canopy and using the raft’s sea anchor and medical kit.

Source: Crash Courses for the Crew, Wall Street Journal

Pilots go through a similar process logging hours upon hours in flight simulators even before their first take-off.

One of the assignments that I had as a young flight attendant related to training for the Flight Service Directors. At the time, these were the most senior in-flight crew members on some aircrafts. For this assignment, instead of heading to the airport, a group of junior flight attendants were taken to a resort in Quebec. This was an assessment centre and the final stage of the Flight Service Director training. We were all given roles and we had to simulate an actual flight and act out a variety of scenarios. Some of us were flight attendants others were passengers.

We simulated the flight. The Flight Service Director trainees had to handle each situation from crew members arguing to delays. Even at that time, the writing was on the wall that I would eventually become an actress. I was the only person who would tackle the role of the hysterical passenger. The simulated flight was videotaped and the trainees received coaching and feedback.

It was early in my career that I was introduced to the power of simulations. So, years later, when my career path headed towards team building, business team building simulations have been my focus. If organizations want to ensure that teams function effectively in a variety of situations, the best way to do this is to simulate these situations over and over again until every member of the team can handle them with ease and comfort.

2. The Importance of Job Aids

Job aids are an important tool in ensuring that airline crews work effectively and smoothly together. I can’t say a lot about this aspect our work as some of this relates to security. I will share the fact that during training, flight attendants are familiarized with the various aircrafts in the fleet and every position that they may occupy on each aircraft. So, if you are on a 747 and assigned to First Class, you know in detail exactly what that position entails, the resources and equipment available to you and the procedures that you are to follow. If you are assigned to the galley, again, you know what that entails and can execute your duties competently and confidently.

With respect to emergency procedures, training and job aids provide you with the tools, strategies and specific steps to handle every situation from a rapid decompression to a ditching. There is no guesswork. Nothing is left to chance.

Pilots have an abundance of tools and instruments to help them monitor their environment and course correct as required. They receive constant information that helps them monitor their position, wind speed (head and tail), inclement weather, and turbulence up ahead.

It occurs to me that other industries would do well to provide thorough job aids for members of their teams. Every meeting room should be equipped with a supply kit to enhance meeting effectiveness including agenda planners, action plans, worksheets for brainstorming tools, etc. Executives and managers also have available a shared set of tools and procedures that they can literally pull off the shelf and use to face a variety of situations including high growth, public relations challenges, shifts in patterns of demand. There should be someone in the organization tasked with monitoring key economic and performance indicators related to performance.

How can this be applied in business? Barack Obama is using a similar process in the White House. During his daily economic briefing, he receives key information about the country’s economic performance. This would be a valuable tool for every executive around the goal. This was common practice in banking. When I did a stint in banking, as a commercial account manager, I received reports summarizing activities for each of my accounts daily and could make decisions and recommendations in a timely manner. (I hope that someone who is still in banking will come by to share what has happened to these monitoring procedures and how things were allowed to get so off-track.)

3. Crew Briefings About Follow-up

One of the most important strategies for ensuring team cohesiveness in the airline industry is the crew briefing. Even though the crew has received thorough and complete training, the cockpit and cabin crews arrive well in advance of each flight. The cockpit crew checks instruments to make sure that everything is safe and in working order. The senior or “in charge” flight attendant takes the cabin crew through a thorough briefing.

As a flight attendant, you are given your specific position and any other duties for which you will be responsible during the flight. There is time to ask questions and receive clarification. Then, each member of the crew goes to his or her position to do a thorough inspection. This involves ensuring that all equipment and supplies are available and in working order. For example, when I was a flight attendant, when you were assigned to the galley, you actually counted the meals and ensure that any special meals were on hand. There is no margin for error. After take off of your trans-Atlantic flight, it’s too late to rectify the situation if the Rabbis meals are missing.

In other industries, this is an important reminder that team building is not a once a year event. A follow-up plan, regular briefings and on-going communication is the real key to keeping things on track.

Photo Credits:  JL Johnson, Eva Rinaldi (Flickr)

Now that we have discussed the value of  simulations, check out the business team building simulations Executive Oasis International offers.



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