The “People” Focus: Human Resources at Alaska Airlines
With thousands of employees spread across nearly 100 locations in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, building a committed and cohesive workforce is a challenge. Yet Alaska Airlines is making it work. The company’s “people” focus states:
While airplanes and technology enable us to do what we do, we recognize this is fundamentally a people business, and our future depends on how we work together to win in this extremely competitive environment. As we grow, we want to strengthen our small company feel . . . We will succeed where others fail because of our pride and passion, and because of the way we treat our customers, our suppliers and partners, and each other.
Managerial excellence requires a committed workforce. Alaska Airlines’ pledge of respect for people is one of the key elements of a world-class operation. Effective organizations require talented, committed, and trained personnel. Alaska Airlines conducts comprehensive training at all levels. Its “Flight Path” leadership training for all 10,000 employees is now being followed by “Gear Up” training for 800 front-line managers. In addition, training programs have been developed for Lean and Six Sigma as well as for the unique requirements for pilots, flight attendants, baggage, and ramp personnel. Because the company only hires pilots into first officer positions—the right seat in the cockpit, it offers a program called the “Fourth Stripe” to train for promotion into the captain’s seat on the left side, along with all the additional responsibility that entails (see exterior and interior photos of one of Alaska Airlines’ flight simulators on the opening page of this chapter). Customer service agents receive specific training on the company’s “Empowerment Toolkit.” Like the Ritz-Carlton’s famous customer service philosophy, agents have the option of awarding customers hotel and meal vouchers or frequent flier miles when the customer has experienced a service problem. Because many managers are cross-trained in operational duties outside the scope of their daily positions, they have the ability to pitch in to ensure that customer-oriented processes go smoothly. Even John Ladner, Director of Seattle Airport Operations, who is a fully licensed pilot, has left his desk to cover a flight at the last minute for a sick colleague. Along with providing development and training at all levels, managers recognize that inherent personal traits can make a huge difference. For example, when flight attendants are hired, the ones who are still engaged, smiling, and fresh at the end of a very long interview day are the ones Alaska wants on the team. Why? The job requires these behaviors and attitudes to fit with the Alaska Airlines team—and smiling and friendly flight attendants are particularly important at the end of a long flight. Visual workplace tools also complement and close the loop that matches training to performance. Alaska Airlines makes full use of color-coded graphs and charts to report performance against key metrics to employees. Twenty top managers gather weekly in an operations leadership meeting, run by Executive VP of Operations, Ben Minicucci, to review activity consolidated into visual summaries. Key metrics are color-coded and posted prominently in every work area. Alaska’s training approach results in empowered employees who are willing to assume added responsibility and accept the unknowns that come with that added responsibility.
Discussion Questions *
1. Summarize Alaska Airlines’ human resources focus in your own words.
2. Why is employee empowerment useful to companies such as Alaska Airlines?
3. What tools discussed in the chapter might be employed to enhance the company’s training and performance efforts? Why?
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