MIAMI — American Airlines has created an integrated purser program to give the carrier’s 2700 leaders professional development training for the combined company.
The effort is part of the carrier’s $2 billion “Going For Great” campaign, which covers new aircraft, fleet upgrades, renovated Admirals Clubs and more check-in kiosks.
Stephen Howell is American’s managing director of flight service standards and training. He handles everything that encompasses policies, procedures, regulatory processes, flight attendant and purser recruitment and hiring, along with training.
The purser training program was launched in May; it has been paused for the summer and classes will resume in September. “We’re looking to offer world-class customer service,” he said. “And we’re doing the training offsite at the Gaylord in Grapevine, not at our flight training center.”
American Airlines is making a significant investment in its hard product, said Howell. “So the timing was perfect for us to also take time to focus on the soft skills,” he said. “We brought the legacy American and US Airways pursers and brought them into one group.”
American will have pursers onboard its domestic three-class transcon flights between JFK and Los Angeles and San Francisco, said Howell. “We felt we needed an onboard leader on those planes,” he said. “We also have pursuers onboard our long-haul international flights, including our two- and three-class service to Europe, Latin America and Asia. We will also have them on our new Sydney service.”
From a logistics perspective, there’s a lot of magic going on behind the scenes, said Howell. “We started offering 24 two-day sessions in May. They self-enroll, and by November, all 2700 will have attended the sessions,” he said.
This is not training in the traditional sense, said Howell. “These are professional development leadership courses. We hold all sessions at the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center, so we have enough real estate available to run the two-day program and they stay on site,” he said. “We wanted to pick the Gaylord, a high-end Marriott, because we wanted them to experience fine service at its best.”
The theme of the seminar is meant to build on the tagline Going for Great, said Howell. “We felt it was important to back that up to deliver the soft skills that will offer customers a transformational rather than a transactional service,” he said. “In the past, the service was very transactional. You do the safety demonstration, deliver a beverage, deliver a tray and move to next service.”
Transactional service is needed, but we also need to deliver transformational service that is personalized for each customer, said Howell. “We use benchmarks from companies like Nordstrom and the Ritz Carleton and share case studies on how they do transformational service,” he explained. “We want to be unique in what we offer. Those companies offer personal attention and make a connection and that’s what we want to do.”
The legacy US Airways always had onboard leadership, but they didn’t have a formal purser program until this year, said Howell. “The legacy American flight attendants went through initial training in the past two years, but hadn’t had a refresher program or ongoing training, so this is a new program,” he said.
The program isn’t about service skills, procedures and filling out forms, said Howell. “But the soft skills are needed for leadership to help them get the best from their teams,” he said. “Everyone knows how to put down a cocktail napkin. This is more about engaging with a customer when putting that napkin down and created a memorable experience.”
When it comes down to service, in years past, it’s been about the functionality of the service, said Howell. “Now it’s about creating pleasure, delight and emotion, along with and connecting with our passengers. Our new hard product alone won’t help, so we have this training so we can focus on this moving forward.”
Today’s customer has had a full day before getting on the flight, said Howell. “All they want to to do is get in their seat, put on headphones, watch inflight entertainment and get a personal experience. Our customers have changed and so must we,” he said. “We all grew up with the Golden Rule — treat people how you want to be treated. We are now adapting the platinum rule — treat others the way they want to be treated.”
As the new American Airlines works toward greatness, it wants customers to realize that things are different, said Howell. “We want them to recognize the fact that our onboard leaders will work with their team to make emotional connections with them and instill in them a strong brand loyalty,” he said. “American is making the investment in the hard product, but you have to have the soft product that goes with it.”