As a pilot just getting into the career, one of the things you will want to look for is an airline that is a good cultural fit. In fact, many airlines look for things that you wouldn’t expect- they’re looking for specific personality types, even as they look for specific skills.


cultural differences in the airlinesI’m Paula Williams.  Today, we get to listen in as Captain David Santo interviews airline branding expert Shashank Nigam about his new book, SOAR.  The book includes profiles of eight of the world’s best airlines, and what gives each of them its unique character.
David Santo: You’re very welcome. And congratulations on your book. Is this the first book that you’ve written?

Shashank Nigam That’s right. It’s the first book I’ve written. Have you got a copy yet?

David Santo: I do. Paula provided me with that, and I don’t know where we got that from. But I’ve seen the book. I’ve got a long list of stuff I want to ask you about to follow up from that.

But congratulations, writing a book is such a huge endeavor. One that I’m trying to do with Paula’s help myself, I’m trying to write a book. And it’s a tough challenge.

Shashank Nigam Well, it certainly is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The last 18 to 19 months, I started doing this in August of 2015.

So it’s been pretty crazy, almost thought about giving up a bunch of times, and then somehow got through it. [LAUGH]

David Santo: And according to the book and the information that we have, you were kind of a technology guy, right? Can you tell us about [CROSSTALK] how you got from being a technology guy to interested in the airlines?

SOAR - How the world's best airline brands delight customers and inspire employees shashank nigamShashank Nigam Yeah, I have a technology background. I went to Singapore Management University, and then to Carnegie-Mellon. And then I was working in a tech start-up in Boston, right across from MIT, for a couple of years. And I had a technology career and technology training, but I always was fascinated by airplanes and airlines.

I’d often stare out of my office window in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and look over towards Logan and see this airplane coming in. And I would say you know what, that has four engines, looks rather long, like a Scud missile. That’s a Virgin Atlantic 346 coming in from Israel. And then I’d go online and check it, and verifying.

Do a fist bump myself just sitting there silently that I got it right. So I was always fascinated by airplanes and airlines, loved to fly. And one day my boss came over to me at my table and said, hey, I keep seeing all these airplane models on your desk.

You’re the only one in the whole company who’s got these. People have seen you looking out of the window. Why don’t you go do something with an airline? Now, that was in 2008 where, at that time, half the airlines in the world were bankrupt, the other half were going bankrupt very soon.

So not the best time to go join an airline. So I did the next best thing I could, which was to start a blog. And the blog was called Simpliflying, And I wrote thrice a week at the intersection of my two interests, which were in airlines, and in branding and marketing.

And that’s how Simpliflying became quite popular as a blog in airline marketing. Over six months we had a bunch of articles. I used to write thrice a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And pretty much it was like a novice sharing my own thoughts and perspectives on how airlines are doing things.

And after six months I realized there was a pattern to those things. So that gave birth to the White Paper and the Six X Model that I share in the book, Soar, as well, in which there are six key factors for airline marketing. Everything from airline experience and the length of experience to externalities like weather and why the airline brand needs to be adaptable enough to deal with that.

So that was some of the initial journey when I published the white paper. I was still working for full time, and decided to take myself a bit more seriously when Interbrand, in the summer of 2008, published my white paper as their summer selection of 2008. So, that’s a bit of background.

David Santo: Wow, that is great. I love hearing those type of stories, and I think everybody who works in the aviation industry really has a passion for it. I’ve met so many people in just diverse areas of the industry who share the same passion that I do being an airline pilot and getting to fly the airplanes.

So you said Simpliflying is headquartered in Singapore. Can you talk a little bit about the company itself?

Shashank Nigam Yeah sure, Simpliflying is indeed headquartered in Singapore. We are truly a global company. We had to be since day one because guess what, most countries have just one airline. So we had to be truly global.

We have staff in Singapore, India, in Spain, the UK, and Canada. They all work remotely. They all work from home. And we meet four times a year, two to four times a year at company retreats as a team where we spend a week together in places like Seattle by a lake or on top of Budapest in a villa for a week, or in Istanbul or in Vegas and London, which was our last retreat.

Our next one is slated to be interestingly, in Singapore in February And we’ve created, we’ve focused as much on our work as we focus on cultures. We’ve become quite well known for our work culture experiments as well as just sort of an aside. All our staff are supposed to take one week off every seven weeks.

It means they can not reply to emails. They can not reply to texts and whatsapps and Slack messages. And if they do then they’re not paid for that week. And other things like that. So it’s a bunch of people who love aviation and we in the last five years, six years, worked with more airlines on marketing strategy than probably anyone else.

David Santo: Wow, That is, that’s a very cool culture that you’ve created and kind of leading from that and talking about that culture. In your book you interviewed a lot of airline leadership personnel at human resource folk. And you talk about how the airlines select their team members which is really fascinating.

In a lot of cases, it sounds like there’s a lot more to selecting people that has to do with a cultural fit, or the character of the person, than about the particular skills or the technical qualifications. Can you talk about what airlines are looking for, and maybe particularly if you can, particularly as far as pilots.

Shashank Nigam All right. There are cultural differences in the airlines.  I think many airlines look for cultural fit, you are right. Because they believe that once the culture fit is there, everything else you can train a pilot or a person for. So, I’ll give you an example. For example, Southwest is very strong on culture. They have a very collegial atmosphere, where everyone is equal and everyone can share their minds, speak their minds out.

And they want frank, open people to join them. So, they screen for a cultural fit. In the chapter on Southwest, I’ve detailed how Southwest interviews and selects people. In fact, it’s harder to get into Southwest Airlines than into Harvard, based on the ratios. That they accept a great number, depending on the number of applications they receive.

So I believe it’s less than 1 percent of people who actually make it through the Southwest interview process. And then they train for it. So Southwest has a department called the Southwest University. The first week of anyone in the company, regardless of whether it’s a pilot or a clerk or a technician or a flight attendant, all of them go through this training right upon joining in Dallas.

And it starts on a Monday, and it’s an immersive experience where they get to meet Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett. They get to tour around the office. This is not skills-based, this is more to do with the company. And then, the carries on. That’s just an American example.

Another example I can share with you is Turkish Airlines, for example. It’s a legacy airline based in the middle of Europe and Asia. And they hire a lot of ex-air force pilots, believe it or not. Because of the skills that they already have. And then they train for culture, as well, which is interesting.

So they’re going by experience. [INAUDIBLE] in Spain, tends to hire younger pilots who are very well tuned with social media. So all pilots at [INAUDIBLE] know how to use Twitter, know how to use Facebook, and are taught to do that by the company. Because the company believes that today’s passengers, guess what, if there’s a, if there’s a panel falling off the engine, the passenger in-flight is going to take a picture of it and put it up on Facebook, even before the flight attendant knows about it, because it’s only after that that he’s going to press a call button to inform someone.

So the pilots need to be able to know how to respond to something, or at least be aware of things like that. I think it varies with cultural fit and skills are the two most important factors, I believe.

David Santo: Wow. That’s very interesting. And I’ve seen that in my career too, how there are cultural differences in the airlines, and pilots have really been targeted by specific airlines for cultural fit.

It makes an interesting, it makes it a more fun environment to work in. But it also means that as a new applicant, there’s a lot of information out there. You can go and study and learn about the airlines you want to apply to. So if somebody’s interested in applying to Southwest, it sounds like there’s a lot of material that’s available to help you as a potential applicant learn about that airline’s culture, and determine ahead of time whether you think you’re a good fit for them.

Shashank Nigam Absolutely. Absolutely. And not just Southwest, if you talk about Finnair, which is another airline featured in the book, Finnair encourages pilots and cabin crew to share on social media they have flights. So you’ve got pilots taking photos from the cockpit, and selfies from the cockpit window, putting it up on Instagram, and they have a ton of following and that’s just part of the company culture.

And FinnAir Is an airline that totally trusts their staff member. FinnAir probably has the world’s most highly educated crew with a large percentage of their crew having a master’s degrees and PhDs, and they even have a priest from the church who flies for them. But, you just have to look online and discover a lot of things about culture, and see which airline is the best cultural fit for your own personality.

David Santo: Wow. So I think, it sounds to me like aspiring pilots really would benefit from reading your book. It might help them to understand a little bit more about cultural differences in the airlines insight into the airline industry. And the ultimate goal for them or reward for them from reading this book is going to be able to help identify what cultures these airlines are looking for, and you’ve done a lot of work on that.