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Cabin service DNA

Cabin service without well-trained, professional crew is an impossibility. Paul E Eden spoke to KLM’s Wim Spelt and Emirates’ Catherine Baird, to learn how the two global airlines deliver their distinctive brands of service

For Wim Spelt, Director Cabin Product and Service Engineering at KLM, cabin service is both a 40-year career and a professional passion. Today he heads a department of around 30 staff with a focus on product development, particularly cabin hardware, service-related instruction and training for cabin and flight crew, and inflight food, right across KLM’s network.


Regarding crew information, he says: “We’re changing from hard copy to the digital world and every member of KLM cabin crew now has an iPad. It contains all the information the crew needs about the passengers on board; names, meal preferences, meet and assist requirements, and so on. It also delivers news and instructions for latest service techniques.


“Crews love having the additional information because it means they can provide a better service. It also means they can prepare for a flight at home and it contains all the handbooks, so they can be more professional. They can adapt it to reflect passenger preferences too, so it’s a ‘learning system’ that feeds data back to the office… and they don’t need to carry a paper passenger information list anymore – on some services it could be five metres long!” 


Spelt’s development work could easily see him lose sight of the ‘frontline’, but he takes care to stay in touch with the carrier’s regular crews: “I’m still a practical guy! I fly five or six times a year as a senior purser. It means I speak as a cabin crew member and manager.”


It also leaves him very aware of the peculiar dichotomy in a cabin crew role, where ensuring safety is always the number one task, and passenger service comes second, yet the only role the majority of travellers ever see is the latter. Given the industry’s extraordinary safety record, it’s thankfully also the only side of the job that the majority of crew ever put into practise.


“Safety is always the primary duty regardless of airline, but there’s also a mix between safety and service. In KLM we place that mix under the umbrella campaign ‘Serving Safety’. We train through an annual two-day recurrent flight safety training course, with a yearly examination that has to be passed, and we constantly discuss safety and how to achieve it during that training. There’s a big difference, for example, between telling a passenger, ‘Sit down!’ and asking, ‘Mr Eden, please take a seat’. It’s a simple thing, but very important.


“We look for the optimal mix and constantly discuss how to achieve it. As well as this discussion and the recurrent training, we release updated information to crews.” And is it really the case that the majority of cabin crew never deal with an inflight emergency? “Hopefully they won’t. After 40 years of annual recurrent flight safety training, I’ve never experienced a safety issue, except perhaps for angry or disgruntled passengers, or turbulence.”


It’s remarkable, but perhaps not surprising, that in four decades of flying Spelt has experienced unruly passengers but no crisis of flight safety. “We have training to deal with that too,” he says. “It’s part of the annual recurrent training, with special training every three years. But if we think something’s going to happen on board, we present the passenger with a Notice of Violation in hopes of preventing an escalation.”


The very best training also underpins Emirates’ offering, according to Catherine Baird, Senior Vice President – Cabin Crew Training, Emirates. “Emirates makes significant investment in training cabin crew. The training team comprises exceptionally experienced and passionate instructors who role model the Emirates spirit. 


“The Emirates Aviation College – Cabin Crew Training facility is world class. The training we deliver there is achieved through a combination of theoretical and practical components. With full motion simulators for safety and emergency training, and cabin service simulators for every cabin in our fleet, our cabin crew practise a variety of scenarios in a real-to-life environment.


“Emirates has invested in defining its unique service personality and designed a bespoke learning journey for cabin crew to explore and experience the human side of hospitality. This experiential learning approach helps them deliver the best service experience possible.” >>

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