Aeroflot is expanding quickly, and that means it needs more flight attendants than ever before. On the outskirts of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport is the Aeroflot flight attendant training centre. About 30,000 staff take training annually here, the vast majority (28,000) being existing employees having their professional skills upgraded with the remainder being new entrants to the profession. Those numbers reflect the fact that the centre trains staff for Aeroflot and its associated airlines such as Rossiya and Pobeda as well as other CIS airlines which take advantage of the facilities and skills on offer.
Asiya Lapina is both an instructor and purser/chief steward, and she says that the 2,000 new students each year spend three months at the training centre, while existing employees come back for a week each year. Whether new or old, the focus is the same.
“For all employees, the first thing is safety, and then the second is service.”
The average age of new entrants is 20-25, and Asiya was an example of this when she joined Aeroflot, having already completed teacher training. So what made her apply?
“It was my love for travel, as well as Aeroflot’s reputation” she says. “Aeroflot is the strongest brand in the Russian Federation, and one with a bright future, not just history.”
As far as the qualities the job requires, as well as a psychological test taken by all candidates, Asiya identifies a requirement that applicants should “love meeting people.”
“It’s a difficult, challenging job, because you are always in an unusual environment, and yet you also have to understand that for us, it is our job, and we are used to travelling, but for many passengers it is quite stressful for them, so we have to be welcoming, but also calm and reassuring. We are representing our country when we do this, and that is what we tell the students.”
“Russians are naturally friendly,” Asiya says, “But we have to teach many of the students to show that friendliness and to smile when they meet the passengers, but at the same time to do it in a natural way so it isn’t artificial. We want Aeroflot to blend Russian hospitality with international standards.”
There’s no doubt those standards have gone up, but Asiya puts this in a historical context before talking about the thoroughness of the training.
“In Soviet times there wasn’t really a service culture. The food was ‘bluebird chicken’, which not only referred to the blueish colour of the food and the lack of choice, but also the attitude sometimes coming from the staff. There wasn’t a service industry and working at Aeroflot wasn’t perhaps such a prestige job, though you did get access to international travel.”
All this changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, of course. The airline shrank and split into many other airlines, and Aeroflot, though the largest of these, probably only had a few million passengers after serving over 1300 million just a few years earlier.
At that time and for years afterwards, flight attendants were sent abroad for their training, but it was only after the opening of the training centre in 2006 and with the arrival of the new Chief Executive Mr Vitaly Saveliev in 2009 that things started to change.
“Mr Saveliev said the airline was about much more than just operations and transporting people from A to B. Service quality has been set as new strategic focus. For starters, a group of flight attendants were sent to a world-renowned Singapore airline service school for training with a further teaching qualification.” Asiya says.
“What makes me proud is that thanks to rigorous introduction of best international practice service levels have risen, but they have also become more authentically Russian by being generous and hospitable.”
As well as service, the quality of the food and drink has also gone up. Michelin star chefs were hired to develop Aeroflot menus. Top management took part in tastings. “Mr Saveliev was keen to make the food more healthy and with more choice,” Asiya says, “Including 17 sorts of special meals. We change our menus every three months, but you can also order special food, and there is food appropriate for the destination, such as Asia food on those routes.”
As part of service-oriented approach, the CEO launched an open line for clients. In addition, Aeroflot started to integrate digital services, including launch of self-check-in kiosks, online and mobile check-in, and new aircraft were equipped with Wi-Fi.
Milestone industry recognition came in 2016 when Aeroflot was named a 4-star airline by the British service quality authority Skytrax.
“Mr Saveliev has tried to make the food more healthy and with more choice,” Asiya says, “Including different sorts of special meals, so we change our menus every three months, but you can also order special food, and there is food appropriate for the destination, such as Asia food on those routes.”
As you’d expect, training takes into account everything from safety of the passengers during the journey through to the correct way to pour wine for passengers. This is a unique set of skills: staying calm in the unlikely event of an emergency while at the same time being able to be perhaps a waiter, a wine sommelier and a medic if a passenger is feeling unwell. The demands are many and various, and so the training is very thorough and includes language skills and also psychology, as well as service training.
It’s clear from the tense faces of students that there can be a lot of pressure to absorb and learn all these new skills, but there are plenty of fun moments as well, not least practising getting in and out of an emergency life raft while ‘rain’ falls from the roof of the giant swimming pool.
These new recruits will be the ones flying with Aeroflot and other airlines for decades to come, so it’s good to know they have such a rigorous training, and that the skills are worked on each year with further visits to the training centre.