Engaging and Communicating With Airline Employees

Caitlin Kirwan

Internal Comms & Engagement Expert

18 Sept 2023

It’s no secret that employee engagement is a tough nut for airlines to crack. With more than 3.6 million global employees across a hugely diverse range of occupations, there are a number of challenges when it comes to engaging and communicating with airline employees.

And working in an industry that’s largely unionized, heavily regulated, and at the mercy of external factors means that airline comms and engagement professionals have their work cut out. 

Despite predictions that the airline industry will grow by almost 24% between 2022 and 2030 to a whopping $635.8 billion, the 2023 Global Pilot Survey found that 63% of pilots are planning to leave their current airline before the middle of 2024. Pilot loyalty is at its lowest since the survey began, and the industry as a whole is still battling its way through a recruitment and retention crisis. 

While not every airline has a retention problem, the need to communicate effectively and support employee engagement is unanimous. But with such dispersed workforces, how can airlines increase engagement, improve communication and ultimately retain the best people? 

To find out, we spoke to representatives from across the industry and reviewed the approaches of multiple major airlines. We’re ready for take-off! 

Challenges communicating with airline employees

Effective internal communication is one of the most important foundations of employee engagement for organizations, but airlines often face additional complexities. 

Let’s explore some of the key challenges. 

A dispersed, deskless, and diverse workforce

One of the main IC challenges for airlines is the sheer diversity of different audience groups, explained Sue Dorrington, Head of Internal Communications for British Airways. 

“I always describe it as having to communicate to ten businesses in one – you’ve got such a broad range of audiences with different needs, located in different areas. Pilots, cabin crew, ground teams, office staff, contact center staff, engineers… the list is endless!” 

“We’ve got 20,000 crew whose only office is the aircraft,” added Mark Duffy, Director of Talent for Ryanair. “As a management function, we need to be able to communicate clearly and effectively with our people.”  

With such a broad range of employee groups, relying on one company-wide internal communications strategy just isn’t going to cut it. The only way to effectively communicate with such a broad audience is to drill down and tailor the approach for each group, in a very bespoke way. 

But smaller airlines often lack the resources to enable segmentation at this level. Tomás Aylward, pilot for CityJet, said that a non-segmented approach within regional airlines can result in all crew members receiving messaging that is only relevant to one base – “It’s easy to start tuning out from messages that aren’t relevant to you, but then you can end up missing things that actually are intended for you.”

The need to balance operational and strategic content 

Balancing content is a key responsibility of internal communication professionals across all sectors, but is notably more challenging for those working within regulated industries such as airlines.  

Michael Norman, pilot for British Airways, explained that operational messaging always needs to take priority, which doesn’t leave much space for company-wide content relating to things like strategy, company values, or recognition. 

“There’s a lot of operation-critical notices and updates that we have to read before we fly, so the other company updates and messages sometimes get missed.” 

Reflecting on his experience, Tomás agreed that there is often a lack of balance in the content being shared with employees of regional airlines, with long emails containing operational feedback commonly outweighing messaging about employee recognition or company strategy.  

“We have to work hard to make content engaging,” Sue explained. “We can’t just complacently push information out and expect people to consume it.” 

Communicating across differing shift patterns 

The vast majority of airline employees are completely deskless and work non-standard shift patterns. 80% of Virgin Atlantic’s global workforce is made up of remote or frontline workers, who typically are always on the move and never in one location at the same time. 

The challenge of getting real-time data and information to frontline employees is one of the main considerations dictating Delta’s internal communications strategy. And this consideration pays great dividends, with Delta being named one of Glassdoor’s 2023 ‘Best Places to Work’ for the seventh year, above all other airlines.        

“One of the main communication challenges for airlines is the difference in working patterns between the people sending the messages and the people receiving them. It’s difficult because there’s never a slot when everyone is online or available,” Michael observed. 

Tomás agreed, adding “ …with everyone working different rosters, you’re not necessarily going to read important information if it doesn’t come through on a day you’re working, so it’s often out of date by the time you pick it up.”  

Top tips for communicating with airline employees  

The most successful employee experience teams turn these communication challenges into opportunities to build engagement. 

Employee engagement might be a complex puzzle for airlines to solve, but doing so unlocks significant rewards such as reduced turnover, increased productivity, and boosted brand advocacy.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) was named the World’s Best Airline in 2023 for the fifth time since 1999. The airline believes that taking a strategic approach to internal communication helps transform key employees such as cabin crew into living examples of the airline’s core values while interacting with customers.

And SIA isn’t the only airline to recognize the power of internal communication.   

Southwest Airlines is often praised for its strong company culture and top-notch employee comms. In a recent interview, Linda Rutherford, Chief Communications Officer explained, “When someone feels informed and engaged and included, the culture can come alive because the employee can do their best work.” 

Sue Gordon, former MD of Employee & Labor Communications for American Airlines also agreed on the importance of placing a heavy emphasis on internal communications, telling the Enterprise Engagement Alliance, “It’s about engaging and creating employee advocates, and empowering our employees – particularly when it comes to communication – to help make a difference, both in terms of the service we’re delivering and how we’re satisfying our customers.” 

Let’s jump into our top tips to find out how to do just that! 

Create opportunities for two-way communication 

Effective two-way communication is a key driver of engaged and loyal teams, so it’s important to help build a positive feedback loop between frontline employees and leadership. Speaking about the importance of active listening and two-way dialogue in airlines, Joanne Smith, Chief People Officer for Delta explained, “We use robust listening tools like our employee engagement and wellbeing surveys to gather feedback. And when we listen and act on that feedback in meaningful, tangible ways, we deepen and strengthen those connections.”

Michael added, “It’s really important for operational teams to be able to have their say. We’re the ones who can most easily identify any issues, so there needs to be a positive feedback loop between crew and leadership.” 

For British Airways, face-to-face communication is the number one driver of engagement for a lot of teams, which Sue said will remain her number one priority – “In the last few months we’ve introduced face-to-face forums for pilots. Our Flight Ops Leadership Team set themselves up in the Crew Report Centre each month to give pilots the opportunity to come and see them face-to-face, ask questions, raise any concern, and get an immediate answer.”   

While face-to-face communication is not always possible, Mark Duffy from Ryanair told us that one of the biggest values of moving from a one-way company intranet to the Workvivo platform has been the ability to have a Spaces feature where employees can interact directly with management, in real-time. 

“One of the best Spaces that we opened up is called ‘Ask Eddie’. We opened it up so that any one of our 24,000 staff can go in and ask Eddie Wilson, our CEO, a question directly. It doesn’t matter what the question is. It’s been open for about five months now, and we’ve had about 250 questions. And Eddie answers them directly, himself.”     

Know your business

As internal communication professionals, it is our role to connect the dots within an organization and facilitate connection. And to be able to support an airline in this way, you have to know the operation inside-out. 

“If you’re going to add value as an internal communicator, you have to know the business,” Sue shared. “An internal comms team shouldn’t be sat in the office; they should be out speaking to people, shadowing people on different shifts, talking to them, and getting feedback.”  

One size never fits all when it comes to internal communications, and the need for tailored approaches for different groups is even more significant for airlines. Knowing your business means understanding the wants and needs of each different audience, which is what makes effective segmentation possible.

Make good use of what you have 

An effective internal communication and engagement strategy does not always have to involve launching a shiny new channel or initiative. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes the best strategies are the ones that simply execute the basics well.

Making good use of crew rooms and rest areas is a great way to reach a large proportion of frontline employees who might not be as accessible via digital channels. It’s simple, but it works.

“We do have notice boards, but they’re not really updated. It would be nice to see things like kudos on the operation and positive messages from other crew members,” Tomás observed. 

“Crew rooms are communication channels in themselves,” explained Sue, “…we see our Crew Report Centre as a vital place to try to drive engagement.” 

Digital signage offers an engaging and visual way to connect deskless teams and share important real-time updates while employees continue going about their daily work. Our recent blog on communicating with frontline workers explores how we can best use digital signage in operational environments. 

Making good use of what you have also means utilizing your existing communication channels in the most effective way. It’s about going back to the brilliant basics and thinking about the best mix of channels to communicate an important message to employees. “If we just receive information in an email, it will probably get skimmed over. But if it’s been backed up with a notice in the Crew Report Centre and also a notification on our iPads, we’re definitely going to pay attention,” said Michael.  

Ensure representation from right across the business

The final tip for engaging and communicating with airline employees is to ensure you have representation from right across the business. We’ve saved our favorite until last! 

Having representatives from each different employee group is a really effective way to build engagement and involvement across the entire workforce. For larger airlines like British Airways, this can involve having an Internal Communications Business Partner for each area, but also working closely with local communicators from within the business. 

“We couldn’t do what we do without our network of local communicators,” explained Sue, “we rely on them. We run a  weekly ‘local communicators network’ where we discuss things we’re going to be communicating and ask for support.”  

Finding your ‘internal influencers’ and turning them into comms champions is a tried-and-tested way to break down barriers, ensure different employee groups have the opportunity to contribute, and increase engagement with important communications. 

Michael spoke to the importance of having representatives from right across the organization involved in the development of new communication platforms or apps, explaining that involving people from the operation creates a positive bridge between the two worlds.     

Engage airline employees with Workvivo

Workvivo is an employee engagement platform that amplifies culture and engagement in the workplace and makes seamless communication possible for all employees. No desks needed! 

Book a demo to find out how Workvivo can support your airline on its employee experience journey.