The airline industry has definitely been through a few areas of turbulence in recent years. Their latest challenge is coping with the sharp rise in oil prices while meeting ever-higher customer expectations, expanding their route networks and adding new service features. The rapid growth of the China market, however, is providing a welcome boost for the sector and creating a wealth of new opportunities.
No major airline intends to miss out on these, least of all Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong-based carrier which has won an international reputation for excellence. With plans to introduce additional flights to Beijing, Xiamen and other mainland destinations, the company has acquired nine new aircrafts and embarked on a recruitment campaign for frontline staff and air crew. "Our target has been to hire over 1,200 flight attendants, 160 customer services officers, around 300 pilots, 36 cadet pilots, and a number of engineering and management trainees during 2005," says Shirley Au Yeung, Cathay's manager for cabin crew.
According to Maria Yu, the company's corporate communication manager (media relations), various factors must still be considered before business initiatives for 2006 are finalised, but the recruitment campaign will definitely continue in line with overall expansion. Applicants for most posts do not necessarily need previous industry experience, since all recruits receive comprehensive training specific to the airline's operations, logistics and customer service philosophy.
Positions as direct-entry pilots are open to those with the appropriate licence and experience, while the cadet pilot programme is an option for younger candidates who are physically fit and have an excellent command of English. To become a member of the cabin crew, recruits should be proficient in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and/or other languages, and similar language skills are useful for those interested in joining the customer service team. Prospective management or engineering trainees should have a university degree and personal attributes such as analytical and problem-solving skills, the ability to lead a team, and the talent to think both strategically and creatively.
"We have a rigorous recruitment process that aims to identify only the most suitable candidates," notes Ms Yu. "There is usually more emphasis on assessing personal characteristics than educational backgrounds, and fresh graduates have the chance to work their way up and develop diverse careers," Ms Au Yeung adds.
Fluency in Mandarin is now an essential requirement for frontline positions in the industry. With exchanges between Cathay Pacific and mainland airlines increasing, employees hoping to take on management responsibilities are also encouraged to achieve proficiency in the language. As an example Ms Au Yeung explains that the company has been providing training in customer service and safety for mainland airlines, such as Air China. In return, this kind of collaboration has given a better insight into the demands and expectations of mainland travellers.
"Training for cabin crew also touches on the specific needs of our mainland clients," says Perry Yu, who is career development and resourcing specialist for Cathay Pacific. "For example, we serve Chinese tea for breakfast rather than tea with milk on flights to Beijing, and provide extra blankets for people who may not be used to the low temperature on the plane," she says. While there are always subtle differences between the needs of passengers from different cultures, Ms Au Yeung emphasises that an international carrier must provide excellent service for all its clients.
Maria Yu confirms that enhancing customer service remains a key business strategy, even if the current price of oil is adding to operating costs. In fact, improved customer service is seen as one way of countering the competition from newer budget carriers which aim to compete for customers mainly by offering lower fares. "In the US or even other countries within Asia, airlines often receive some form of government support," Ms Yu adds. "In Hong Kong, though, we operate in an open market and have to be self-sufficient in times of adversity."
As Ms Au Yeung points out, the airline business is a high-cost industry and operations can be affected by a variety of factors, which range from natural disasters and terror attacks to financial crisies. "It is impossible to predict what changes and challenges will lie ahead, and we survive both good times and hard knocks with a far-sighted business strategy," she explains. "Rather than cutting costs, we intend to make more investment in our service and maximise efficiency, since that is what distinguishes Cathay Pacific as a world-class airline and sustains us through difficult times."
- The China market offers airlines a great opportunity for
- A recruitment campaign for cabin crew, customer service
staff and pilots is likely to continue in 2006
- University-educated management and engineering trainees
are also needed
- Language proficiency in Putonghua is now seen as a prerequisite
for new recruits
- Comprehensive training is given in the airline's operations
and customer service philosophy
- Cooperation with mainland-based carriers can provide benefits
for both parties