The civil aviation sector was brought to its knees during the COVID-19 pandemic. The imposition of country-wide lockdowns, social distancing measures and travel bans forced flights to be grounded and operations to come to a complete halt.
Passenger numbers tanked – data from the International Civil Aviation Organization found that passenger numbers dropped by 2.7 billion during 2020 – and the entire sector lost almost $230 billion in revenue during 2020. Airlines took on almost $168 billion of these losses, according to McKinsey.
While 2021 brought some improvement for airlines and the wider civil aviation sector, financial challenges remained. Bain & Company found that 2021 global demand was just 40% of 2019 levels, and the sector lost $138 billion in 2021, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Virgin Atlantic responds to COVID-19
Of course, no airline was immune from the financial shocks in 2020 and 2021.
For instance, in 2020 Virgin Atlantic experienced a year like no other. The airline saw an 80% drop in passenger numbers from 2019, its revenue declined from £3 billion in 2019 to £868 million and it saw an operational loss of £539 million for the year. Virgin Atlantic’s loss for the year was £864 million – this is up from £54.7 million in 2019.
Thinking back to 2020, Virgin Atlantic’s senior manager for leadership Kerry Isherwood tells UNLEASH that the company was in survival mode. Everyone was focused on “how were we going to get through this and survive?”
The first thing the company did when it had to ground all of its passenger aircraft in April 2020 was “put about 90% of our workforce on furlough. That left us with a skeleton operation to set the wheels in motion to ensure our survival”.
Over the course of 2020, Virgin Atlantic laid off 45% of its pre-COVID-19 workforce, around 4,500 people, in 2020. This occurred in two organization-wide restructures – the first in May, and the second in September. At the same time, as the second in September 2020, Virgin Atlantic completed a £1.2 billion solvent recapitalization to keep the business running.
For those who kept their jobs but were still on furlough into 2021, Isherwood explains: “We took the opportunity to rotate people in and out as much as possible to keep the connection [with the company] and keep those skills up to date as much as possible”.
They were primarily deployed into Virgin Atlantic’s cargo operation, which became its core business during 2020.
“We’re really grateful to shareholders, the leadership team and our people for ensuring our survival”, shares Isherwood.
Virgin Atlantic prioritizes L&D in 2022
For Virgin Atlantic, 2021 was still about survival. While COVID-19 vaccines had been approved by global regulators, national roll outs take time and COVID-19 restrictions, including on travel, continued to be the order of the day.
Nonetheless, things did start to improve for Virgin Atlantic by the end of the 2021. According to Bloomberg, its statutory loss for the year narrowed to £486 million.
Isherwood adds that the airline also used 2021 to “reset and rethink about how we do things across the whole company”. The HR team, which Isherwood is part of, started to refocus on learning and development, as well as on engagement.
As a result, its HR priorities for 2022 are learning and development (L&D), as well as performance. “Our people make our brand. Our people spark that emotional connection with our customers, and that’s what creates the love [our customers] have for Virgin Atlantic”, and therefore keeps the business running.
Therefore, Virgin Atlantic is focused on ensuring its people have the best experiences possible at work. “If we get that right, [it] will drive excellent experiences for our customers. We call this our double helix”.
Inside L&D at Virgin Atlantic
It is all good and well to talk about L&D, but what precisely is Virgin Atlantic introducing to support its employees’ development at work?
“We’ve developed our learning principles: digital-first, bite-sized, in the flow of work and personalized”, according to Isherwood. These are based on the HR team reading lots of studies and surveys on topics like engagement, productivity and performance, and applying them in the real world.
As a result, Virgin Atlantic also launched its Learning Locker, a bite-sized digital learning solution, as well as a Careers Portal to support individuals with the lifecycle of their career”.
“We want to provide all individuals [with] the tools to navigate diverse careers with us”, and “explore career progression on an individual level”, notes Isherwood.
To help here, Virgin Atlantic employees have access to Cornerstone’s library of over 5,000 courses. The airline is working with Cornerstone to develop learning pathways to help individuals figure out the best approach to develop from point A to point B in their careers.
“Currently, there’s a dichotomy of choice. 5,000 courses is a lot, and we don’t want people to go in and come out not having selected anything because there’s so much to choose from,” adds Isherwood. “The idea is to help people be more discriminate in their learning choices, and really tap into the learning that’s going to make the most difference in that moment.”
The airline has also launched a new approach to performance called Your Performance Journey; it helps to “record continuous conversations, OKRs [objectives and key results], personal goals and feedback” with the aim of “driving that performance mindset across the company”, according to Isherwood.
Virgin Atlantic is also looking into having more on-the-job upskilling in the future. Isherwood explains that during the pandemic, “a lot of our people were thrust into different roles using different skills to support the survival of our organization”.
“They were able to use different skills and gain new experiences, and this is something that we want to continue through collaborative project work”.
Virgin Atlantic embraces coaching
Another element of the airline’s new prioritization of L&D (and particularly the development piece) is its decision to offer digital coaching.
“We believe in the power of coaching, we think it is one of the most effective development tools. That is backed up by research”, but success only comes when it is scalable and available across the entire organization.
The best way to do scalable coaching is digitally.
“As a global company, we need a global solution. It has to be cost effective – we don’t have the budget that we had pre-COVID-19 – so a digital solution was the only option”, according to Isherwood.
Despite the budget constraints, “we absolutely did not want to compromise on the quality of coaching – the overall coaching experience has to be as good as any other offering”, even if it is digital. Therefore, Virgin Atlantic decided to partner with CoachHub on a digital coaching pilot for six months.
All of CoachHub’s coaches must meet certain qualification criteria to operate on the platform, including certification from a leading coaching association, an excellent digital presence, have done at least 500 hours of coaching and have six years of manager-level experience in a relevant industry.
Other reasons for the Virgin Atlantic-CoachHub partnership were that the “platform is easy to navigate, it is intuitive, it is simply to use” – and it is going to reduce the amount of admin time for Isherwood and her team.
Another major positive is CoachHub’s own research on the power of coaching. “Their research has really helped me to engage stakeholders” within Virgin Atlantic. “I felt fully armed with research evidence to make the case for digital coaching”.
The logistics of Virgin Atlantic’s CoachHub pilot
Virgin Atlantic’s CoachHub six-month pilot has just started. Other big brands who were already working with CoachHub include Coca-Cola, Asics, Pernod Ricard and B.Braun.
While “to borrow CoachHub’s strapline, we want to democratize coaching”, the technology will be trialed initially by management. 50 individuals from three different groups have been selected: senior executives like heads of departments and vice-presidents, middle managers and flight service managers.
Within those groups, “we’ve identified people who have the potential to move sideways or step into more leadership roles who could benefit from coaching”, shares Isherwood.
She adds that she is particularly excited that Virgin Atlantic is offering CoachHub to the third group: flight service managers who are “our on-board leaders, the people that lead, motivate, inspire and direct all of our cabin crews”.
“We’re trialing it with this population because we think if we can support them to become the very best versions of themselves, they, in turn, will support the rest of their crew”, meaning “the impacts will be immediate for our customers”.
Isherwood is very confident that the CoachHub pilot will go well. She says “when it’s a successful trial” (not if), and notes that “there is a lot of excitement” already. “We just can’t wait to get the trial done and to move forward with our bigger plans for coaching”.
Labor shortages and the ‘Great Resignation’ at Virgin Atlantic
The conversation turned away from L&D and towards the current staff crises that the airline sector, in particular, is facing.
A shortage of workers has forced thousands of flights across Europe to be cancelled or delayed in recent months. The situation is similar in the US.
The issue is that the demand for holidays and business travel has surged this year (people are desperate to go on a foreign holiday or on business trips after two years of COVID-19 restrictions). But many airlines who had to lay off staff because of the collapse of air travel during the pandemic have struggled to fill open roles like cabin crew and pilots quickly enough.
But Isherwood shares that Virgin Atlantic (who laid off 45% of its staff during 2020) has been successful in restoring its headcount to around 75% its pre-COVID-19 figure. This is primarily by rehiring many of those who were laid off during the 2020 restructures; “we’ve been faring well”, she notes.
She adds that the airline ran a cabin crew recruitment campaign earlier in 2022. The aim was to hire 400 individuals, and Virgin Atlantic received more than 5,000 applications.
“We think that is really down to the strength of our brand; the love for Virgin”, both the wider group and Virgin Atlantic specifically, according to Isherwood. She continues that long haul travel is also very appealing to many.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss attributed the high demand for a job at Virgin Atlantic to the company’s “secret sauce”. “We pay fairly and competitively. In this day and age, people…want to be a part of something,” Weiss said.
Although the situation is okay at the moment, Isherwood notes: “I certainly don’t think we can rest of our laurels”. She is hopeful that the airline’s new focus on L&D will continue to support its retention and attraction efforts.
Having “learning and development opportunities fuels happiness and overall engagement. If people can play an active role in their own development, they’re going to feel empowered”, be more satisfied in their jobs, and have “a stronger sense of belonging to the company”.
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