Air Canada’s new LCC – rouge – teams with Disney for customer service training

Air Canada Rouge x Disney_a680x295

For more on the latest trends in airline hospitality, see our recent presentation at the 2013 Hamburg AIX Passenger Experience Conference.

By Raymond Kollau, airlinetrends.com

The idea behind Air Canada’s new low-cost subsidiary Rouge is to offer a lower-cost alternative for several international leisure destinations to which Air Canada’s current cost structure makes it prohibitive to fly. Air Canada is hoping with lower wages and benefits along with a higher-density configuration of its planes, Rouge’s unit costs will be lower than the main line’s by about 25 percent or more.

The airline will offer 13 leisure destinations in Europe and the Caribbean from Toronto and Montreal: Edinburgh, Venice, Athens; and a host of vacation choices in Cuba, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Destinations will be added in the coming months as the fleet grows, expected to reach 50 aircraft in the next three to five years.

Rouge will launch service with four planes on July 1st and will start its inaugural flights that day from Toronto to Kingston, Jamaica, and from Montreal to Athens in Europe.

Casual style
As Rouge will be more leisure-focused compared with Air Canada, this means a change in style and attitude for their service staff. The airline says it aims  to deliver a relaxed, casual onboard experience and just reveiled its new flight attendant uniforms, which are much more casual, with relatively-basic burgundy tops and grey pants, and  shoes from Canadian designer John Fluevog.

The outfits came together in just four months, by taking pieces that already exist on the market and having certain elements customized to suit the brand. “You can move quite quickly when you don’t invent anything new,” says Renee Smith-Valade VP customer experience of Rouge.

L’Oreal has created “the look” for Air Canada rouge flight attendants, using products from its brands Maybelline New York and Redken Fifth Avenue. The crew will be equipped with a starter kit of the product, and will be trained on on how to use them.

Service training
Rouge has also partnered with The Walt Disney Co – who has trained the likes of United Airlines and Alaska Airlines – to help with the training of its flight attendants to aid in the transformation. In addition to five weeks of safety and other training, Air Canada Rouge first 150 flight attendants will spend a week at the Disney Institute in Orlando to learn the ins and outs of its customer service model. They will also hone their skills and techniques at Disney World parks in Orlando.

Says Michael Friisdahl, Air Canada Rouge CEO, “We’re going to have on an on-board experience that is going to be very engaging, very family focused and we’re engaging Disney to help with that. It’s also going to be very professional, and I think that’s key,” he added. Behind all of this are two basic philosophies at Disney he wants to foster at Rouge: “It may not be our fault, but it is our problem,” and “The customer might not always be right, but they are never wrong.”

According to Renee Smith-Valade, VP customer experience of rouge, did consider other options but found Disney to fit is vision best. “We decided early on that we wanted to deliver a different kind of customer service that was much more vacation, holiday, fun, a little more casual, a little more relaxed on board and so we went out to see who could deliver that. They just had an approach that we really liked – it was very much about creating a whole culture at Air Canada rouge as opposed to just training front line staff.” “Of course, they also deal with children, family, seniors – the whole gamut of the kind of customers we’ll have flying on Air Canada rouge, so there’s a good fit for us with them.”

The airline’s director of inflight service, Annette Anand, said that the company “saw (Disney) as the Harvard of customer service training, and we wanted to align ourselves with that approach.” She said the company wants to create a “relaxed, comfortable approach” to service, not necessarily the hey-how-are-ya, folksy attitude fostered by rival WestJet.

Low-cost mentality
However, in true low-cost style, the training at Disney will come at a cost for Rouge’s new flight attendants, who will have to commit CAD49 a month for three years from their pay cheques to cover a portion of these training cost at the institute. If they leave before that term, they will be required to pay the remainder of the CAD1,764 owed. They will also be paid minimum wage during the six-week training session before their wages rise to CAD22.99 an hour for a minimum of 75 hours per month.

Annette Anand, Rouge director of inflight service, defended the decision, saying that participation in the Disney training program was a “personal investment in yourself,” suggesting the skills learned through the highly-regarded training school will easily transfer to “any other position in the customer service industry.”

Anand said in a memo to the new employees the decision to have the employees contribute to their training was something the carrier “didn’t take lightly.” “We’re making a significant investment and in asking you to cover a small portion of the incidental cost, you’re also investing in your future,” she wrote. Anand told Yahoo! that the carrier held discussions and focus groups with successful applicants and they “didn’t have anyone who flinched at (chipping in for training.) “I’m quite confident we’re doing the right thing.”

The union that will represent the flight attendants said it believes all such training costs should be paid by an employer. Furthermore, Rouge’s investment in crew training should also pay-off for the airline as passengers will receive better service and therefore repay itself. Says HR consultant Laura Frangella: “People love to complain about airline service, whether over a grumpy group of attendants, a condescending scolding for wearing the wrong headphones at the wrong time, stale crackers, whatever. If rouge’s partnership with Disney succeeds in reducing those complaints, it could be a big boost to the brand.

For more insights on airline hospitality, see our recent presentation at the Hamburg Passenger Experience Conference, as well as this article we wrote for the Airline Passenger Experience Association: “Great Expectations – How standards set in other industries fuel airline passenger expectations.”

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