Air Carrier Song An Escape From “Oppressive” Airline Jobs

By Douglas Wolk

Jan. 7, 2005

Song was launched less than two years ago as a division of Delta Air Lines that could take over Delta Express’ old discount leisure routes, compete with JetBlue and act as a test lab for new ideas for air travel. It’s already drawn attention for being a very different sort of airline–for its employees as well as its customers.

    Workforce Management spoke to Tim Mapes, Song’s managing director of marketing, and Jaime Jewell, general manager of brand activation and training, about how the company chooses and manages its flight attendants.

    Workforce Management: You hired everyone at Song from Delta’s employee base. How did you select them?

Jewell: It was a huge advantage to be able to go in and be very specific about the brand behaviors we were looking for. We wanted people who would be a good fit with the culture, as well as the job requirements. So we had an audition process, which was very new to the people at Delta. They were asked to respond to a set of fairly open-ended scenarios that you might see when you fly–to make the customer happy, do the right thing and feel good about themselves at the end, within the context of the culture we’ve set up for them.

Mapes: Before we created Song, we did a tremendous amount of research among both customers and our frontline employees, and there were striking parallels in their feedback: that air travel, in general, feels almost oppressive in its policies and procedures and almost militaristic in how it goes about what would otherwise be a customer-service experience.

Employees as well as customers felt trapped in the system. The name Song came from the idea of self-expression, and that’s what we were looking for. Flight attendants traditionally read a script from something called the Red Book, which is an FAA-documented script; that’s why they all talk alike, with really bizarre language like the “aft lavatory.” We sought people out who, for example, could incorporate their own personalities into the speaking points. And we have them come off the plane into the gate area to introduce themselves. It requires a level of personal confidence and willingness to interact with people.

    Workforce: Let’s say there’s one flight attendant who’s perfect for Song and not so perfect for Delta, and another who’s perfect for Delta and not so perfect for Song. What would be the differences between them?

Mapes: Because Delta’s largely dealing with a business-travel audience, there is a formality to the way our Delta flight attendants act. In Song’s case, these are flights that leave from New York and go to five cities in Florida, Las Vegas or Nassau, for the most part. These are people who are on vacation and want to have a little bit more fun. So it’s more informal or relaxed on Song, and more professional on Delta.

    Workforce: How do you evaluate Song employees’ performance?

Mapes: Flight attendants are largely an unsupervised workforce–obviously, there’s not management flying around with them. We try to give folks the tools they tell us they need to serve customers, and then let them go. These are seasoned airline veterans. We don’t have a performance measurement system that would require something like a checklist or a formal evaluation. We do go out and talk with them as often as we can, and ask them what they’re experiencing. The role of the Song headquarters is essentially to support the front line.

Jewell: We encourage peer-to-peer feedback. We have a group called peer coaches, who go out into the system and offer support for new attendants and new procedures. … That’s been very helpful, and pretty well received.

    Workforce: You’ve said that you conceived of Song as a culture more than an airline. What’s come out of the culture that’s surprised you?

Mapes: The degree to which it’s egalitarian. Frontline employees have our president’s cell phone number. We host a conference call twice a month where they can ask any leader of the company any question. When you provide people with as much visibility and access as possible, they totally buy into what we’re trying to do, to the point of submitting product development and customer-service ideas.

One flight attendant in Tampa–his name is Will–came up with an idea to sell pink martinis on board and provide a portion of the proceeds to breast cancer research. We got this e-mail from him, and we jumped on it. It spread organically through the whole system that anybody who has a good idea can submit it and it gets acted on.

The people in the field who are the most vocal critics of what we do are asked to assume the leadership of fixing it. It takes someone who would’ve been out on the periphery and turns them into an engaged, vocal advocate. We sell food on board, and there were some flight attendants who had ideas on how we could do that better. We said, “OK, we hear you loud and clear. Why don’t you come forward with a plan to fix this?” And they did.

Jewell: We’ve also created a few special assignment positions around the system. Flight attendants or gate agents can be promoted into a short-term assignment that lets them test their abilities and see what it’d be like to be in a greater leadership position. It’s really worked out great.

    Workforce: How do you keep your employees connected to the brand?

Jewell: We have visible leadership and easily accessible management–we have an annual event called Songapalooza, where we bring everyone back together with the entire leadership team at an off-site location.

We walk them through the year’s business plan and marketing plan, addressing performance gaps and giving them an attaboy for the ones we’re doing great on. We spent almost the entire month of May this year working with frontline groups, and scheduled leaders to spend three days a week with them. We make the time.

    Workforce: What do you think people outside the travel industry should learn from the Song way of doing things?

Mapes: Marketing people tend to do an enormous amount of customer research, (but) they don’t use the same tools to go to their employees and develop similar insights. We did with our flight attendants and customer service agents, and it pays enormous dividends. When we see our customer-satisfaction tracking results, it’s the Song people and the interactions they have with our passengers on board that makes for the most frequent quote we hear, which is “This was the best flight I’ve ever had.”

Jewell: To be really proud of your product is a huge thing. If our front line feels really good about what they’re presenting–and that includes themselves, dressed in Kate Spade and Jack Spade uniforms–that has an enormous impact on the way the product is received.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with