View from 30,000 Feet

When Delta Air Lines absorbed Northwest Airlines Corp. in 2008, the Training function realized it was in for a bumpy ride. Here’s a look at the strategies used and progress made since the takeover was announced.

By Lorri Freifeld

Orchestrating a smooth training transition during a merger or acquisition is never easy. But when it involves the joining of two major airlines, well, fasten your seatbelts. There almost definitely will be turbulence ahead.

Just ask Scott Nutter, Flight Operations general manager at Delta Air Lines. He’s been involved in training for a few decades and says the biggest training challenge he’s faced has been Delta’s merger with Northwest Airlines Corp. in the last three-plus years. “The merger involved two very different corporate cultures,” he explains, “and more than 80,000 total employees.”

Throughout history, airline mergers have been challenging, Nutter notes. “Many people say, ‘We’ll take the best of what you do and the best of what we do and make a hybrid.’ But this tends to add more complexity.”

Instead, the newly merged airline took the opposite approach—Adopt and Go. “On the compliance side, all airlines have an operating certificate issued by the FAA. We were trying to get to a single operating certificate. So we looked at every policy and procedure at the two carriers, picked the approach we liked best, and then trained everyone on it using a variety of delivery methods, including instructor-led classes, e-learning, and on-campus and distance learning,” says Nutter, who oversees a staff of 20 in Flight Operations, managing pilot training and development. “If we chose the Delta way, but found some Northwest methods had merit, we’d go back and look at them after we achieved our single operating certificate.”

The strategy worked. The newly merged company achieved its single occupancy certificate in 14 months instead of the usual several years.

Pilot Plans

Part of the reason airline mergers are so complicated when it comes to training is that the industry provides a cross-section of training, including:

  • Compliance
  • Technical
  • Soft skills and leadership
  • Customer service

Pilot training (which is included in the bullets above) is very technical, with the content driven by compliance, Nutter says. For technical training, pilots went to training centers for ground school and flight simulation. “In this industry, pilot training tends to chunk in three ways,” Nutter explains.

Indoctrination: Onboarding and baseline technical training

Qualification: Being initially trained as a pilot on a 737

Recurrent: Annual recurrent training

Delta pilots were used to doing some training via home study by CD, but pilots at Northwest didn’t have that option. They always had to go to the training center. Also, pilots usually are broken up by fleet. “At Northwest, each fleet operated as a separate training department with autonomy. The Northwest decentralized approach was siloed and resulted in less standardization,” Nutter says. “But at Delta, training development is centralized and standardized. So we decided to let them stick with what they knew until we harmonized the process.”

Greet, Assist, Thank

One fallout from the merger was a drop in performance metrics, Nutter says. “Airlines run on operational efficiency, and that was Northwest’s forte. It ran a tight operation. As the two companies merged, performance metrics such as on-time arrivals and departures dropped, and baggage complaints increased.”

As a result, Delta conducted robust customer service training to ensure flawless execution. “It’s all about doing what you should be doing when you should be doing it,” Nutter emphasizes. “Customer service is the now.”

Delta uses the Greet, Assist, Thank model for customer service and scripts to the minute the logistics of getting baggage to the concourse and onto the right plane, getting people through security quickly, etc. Ticket agents receive instructor-led and role-play training. “And when we started charging bag fees, people stuffed more bags into the overhead bin, so flight attendants needed to be trained on how to deal with that on the customer service side. We don’t want delays,” Nutter explains. “Pilots also have to be trained on customer service. For instance, they have to understand that timely communication about the status of their flight is what matters most to customers.”

Operationally, Delta is getting better, Nutter says. “For Flight Operations, we go through Level 3 evaluation for everything we do. And we do Level 4 evaluation by tying training data to operational performance and safety metrics. As a result, we’ve received several awards, including Travel Weekly’s Magellan Award and being named to Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies list in 2011.”

Technology Takes Flight

Adding yet another layer of complexity to the merger, the two airlines used two different learning management systems (LMSs). Delta had a small department that managed its corporate LMS. It held more records and people, so it was easier to migrate most of the Northwest divisions over. Northwest had an LMS that was purchased later. The Northwest pilots were tested in the LMS, while the Delta pilots were tested in an internally developed system. There also was a sophisticated e-learning project at Northwest that only operated on the new LMS, Nutter notes. “To this day, we still have two LMSs more than three years after the merger.” Ultimately, though, Nutter says the airline will go with a new, single LMS.

On the technology front, the airline is moving toward mobile training as quickly as possible, Nutter says, “but I’ve seen a big change in the last three or four years. A year-and-a-half ago, folks got the CEO to set up a Social Media Team to give airport customer stats—the CEO buy-in came about after a customer with 150,000 Twitter followers complained on the platform. The group started Tweeting, and today it’s actively monitored and responded to. Since 2010, we have become very tapped into Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.”

Nutter believes Delta hasn’t taken full advantage of social networking yet—particularly setting up communities of practice. “You need someone to monitor and proctor them,” he notes. “I wish had more time to explore it.”

The industry is going through big changes on the technology front. “Today, our cabin crews are using iPads. They have an interface with the entertainment system and can do simulations,” Nutter says. “And pilots are moving to an electronic cockpit or flight kits instead of books and manuals.”

There are two models: a tablet device in the cockpit issued to the plane or a tablet issued to the pilot. “Other airlines have purchased tablet devices for their flight crews without a well-thought-out strategy in place,” Nutter says. “We are conducting tests of tablet devices in the cockpit to gather data in order to formulate a complete strategy. How such a device can be used to support training is a core design consideration.”

Nutter also says Delta sees the possibilities for serious gaming, as it has matured quite a bit. “At the Advanced Quality Program Conference (AQP), we worked with a group that works with the military. A group of soldiers in Afghanistan found an IED, took pictures, sent them to a remote location, and patched in an expert to examine them. In my mind, that scenario is similar to a plane over the Atlantic having a security risk and having an in-flight crew talking to a risk-control destination to find out other potential airports to land at,” Nutter says. “It’s difficult to present this scenario in a classroom. We’ve seen this done as a scenario-based game and are going to explore this further this year.”

In the meantime, he says, “we also utilize small games, along the lines of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? meets Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Using games with simples Q&As seems to be the most effective when it comes to testing pilots’ knowledge retention. For example, we ask them 25 questions, and when they get one wrong, we send them to the right answer.”

Delta continues to look for ways to leverage technology and move appropriate training from the classroom to e-learning. “We’ve invested millions of dollars over the last four years to create a desktop simulator pilots can use at home,” Nutter says. “Think Microsoft Flight Simulator but with an accurate, fully functional cockpit.”

All in all, “we all feel like we’ve been wearing our asbestos suits fighting the fires from the merger,” Nutter says. “But now we can go back to training and look at the new and different possibilities out there.”

Airline Trainer Tips

  • Learn instructional system design (ISD), learn what it means to be a developer and trainer, learn the process.
  • Make sure you have business acumen and understand the business. Otherwise, you can’t build training programs that support the business.
  • Understand the quality management system. Get into how work is being done. Close gaps and look at performance.
  • Keep in mind that training does not solve every problem. Maybe the solution should be to fix the process, to fix your checklist.
  • Understand human performance improvement—and have a bigger-picture view.
Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.