A new flight attendant manager smoothes the waters at Flair Airlines

A Flair 737-400 in its original livery, lands at Vancouver International Airport (photo: Brett Ballah).

It’s a little more than a two-hour drive from Sandy Burns’ home in Airdrie, north of Calgary, to her new office at Flair Airlines headquarters at Edmonton International Airport. It says something about the state of aviation in Canada that she can’t fly as fast as she can drive, even though she lives not far from the nearest airport and works in the industry.

Burns is the new manager for flight attendants at ultra low-cost carrier Flair Airlines, appointed March 26 after stints managing at regional affiliates Westjet Encore and Air Canada Jazz.

“I decided that I really loved the spirit of the startup,” she said in an exclusive interview with Western Aviation News. “Some people do really well in the environment where it’s planned out where you know what’s going to happen the next day and you know what’s going to happen the next day after and you’ve got a pretty good schedule, and that there’s security and stability.

“I really missed creating change in one meeting; recognizing that the pieces fall in someone else’s office and just going down the hallway and connecting to that piece and then you’ve got something really cool. And just wearing different hats and being exposed to different parts of the business, which you wouldn’t do if you were in a really big company, where you’re more of a specialist doctor as opposed to an emergency doctor.”

Flair is a major downsize for Burns. In her 30th year in the aviation business, Burns left a job managing cabin crew at Westjet’s regional subsidiary, Encore, to join Flair. It can’t hurt that Burns came from the same company that is Flair’s biggest rival. Westjet, which owns Encore, also owns ultra low-cost carrier Swoop, which is waging a pitched battle with Flair in its Edmonton home town.

Burns, who has experience managing more than 500 cabin crew, now runs a department of about 120 women and men. Together, they’re faced with the herculean task of keeping passengers happy, while keeping costs down.

“You know when you have that one friend that you describe a story to and they pose that one question – something you never thought but it actually changes the story completely – it’s kinda that thought I got, absolutely invigorating when I came to Flair. Came alive, really.”

Perhaps Burns’ biggest challenge will be changing the work culture at Flair, which had a tumultuous year as it transitioned from a charter airline to a full-fledged ultra low-cost carrier. At the same time, Flair moved its headquarters from Kelowna, B.C. to Edmonton, and embarked on a hiring spree to back ambitious growth plans.

“It’s about relationship building.”

  • Sandy Burns

The timing might be a coincidence, but just weeks after Burns arrived at Flair, the company settled a new collective agreement with flight attendants who, before Christmas, were locked in an acrimonious battle with management over plans to cut salaries for new hires. Burns said in her first two weeks on the job, she was able to sit down for supper with representatives of the Canadian Union of Public Employees – the union that represents flight attendants – and let bygones be bygones.

“It’s about relationship building. When we can work together, ultimately, we’re both focussed on our flight attendants and improving their lives. So far since I’ve been here, that’s what I’ve seen.

“There were some things that needed to change from the company’s perspective for that change to be felt by the flight attendant group,” said Burns. She says she’s seeing, and feeling, that change at Flair, where the company is still small enough that the newest hire can speak directly to the chief executive officer. “It’s really a very caring nature, not just from a very superficial level, it’s coming from a genuine concern for the care of the employee group.

“Being a flight attendant for 14 years, I know how important it is, often times you just want someone to hear what you’re saying. They don’t want you to fix it overnight, they just want to know that you heard their specific frustration on that day.”

Despite any frustration that might crop up, Burns said there is still a glamour – and – pride that comes from being a flight attendant.

“It’s fun. It is so fun to see someone’s eyes light up that are so excited about one change that they made in somebody’s day, and those are the things they want to tell me. Those are the stories they want to recreate again and again. Originally when they would come into my office, it was to tell me about how they were feeling and what was going on, but now it’s a sharing of ‘guess what happened today, you’re not going to believe this.’ It’s either funny or so weird or unusual.

“I had streams of flight attendants, I’d have six of them sitting in my office, telling me about what it was like, and what it is now, and where they want to go. I loved it! They kept coming in and I said ‘I should set up a foosball table,'” she said with a laugh.

It hasn’t been all fun and games at Flair. The company came under heavy criticism earlier this year when, without notice, the airline dropped flights to a number of destinations in the United States, and offered little in the way of compensation. Then, in early April, Flair pulled out of the U.S. market altogether a month ahead of schedule, blaming its leasing company for recalling planes to deal with the world-wide grounding of the Boeing 737 Max.

It’s been tough on the company’s image, with some travellers whose flights were cancelled vowing never to return to Flair. The cost of those about-faces has not been fully calculated (a class-action suit has also been launched), and may not be known for years. Burns recognizes the pain both for passengers and the company, but also sees an opportunity to set things right.

“This to me is actually perfect timing,” said Burns. “It’s going to give me the time to be able to reset some things and then set out some clear direction for my group. We need a little bit of this downtime to make some changes that are necessary so that we can go to the next level. That won’t be in too long.

“I want to get a really great, unique to industry training for our flight attendants, but at the same time, understanding the brand and really infusing that into what we do.”

That includes not only incorporating a new 737-800 into the fleet later this month, but also getting flight attendants used to the passengers an ultra low-cost carrier tends to attract: people who haven’t necessarily flown before. That means those people are not familiar with the different airline procedures, and may not understand why they exist.

“It takes a bit more time with our passenger to make sure they understand the why behind things, and taking the time to explain it as opposed to just telling ‘here’s what we want you to do.'”

Flair, which recently sold a 25% stake to 777 Partners, an American investment firm, bills itself as Canada’s only independent low-fare airline. It is in a dogfight with rival Swoop, and faces the prospect of additional competition later this year if Canada Jetlines launches as it predicts on December 17.

For Burns, her people will make a difference, in particular flight attendants who are the face of the company, and who spend the most time with passengers in close quarters.

“What I see so far is that the people we have hired, also want to put their fingerprints on things. What I hear from them, what I see from them, they’re here and they’re excited about the future of Flair, they’re not looking and saying ‘pay me more money.'”

In the world of ultra low-cost flying, where every dollar is precious, more money is the one thing no one can afford.

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