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IndiGo commands an enviable passenger share of the Indian aviation market. The airline has grown steadily from an exclusive domestic carrier to an international airline, now flying to several cities worldwide. IndiGo’s continual success in a challenging sector, amid recurring headwinds, must be attributed to its immaculate people processes and strategies.
We wanted to understand how the home-grown carrier identifies and nurtures talent and what processes go behind the clockwork precision and efficiency that has come to define the airline since its inception over a decade ago. We spoke to Raj Raghavan, Senior Vice President & Head of Human Resources at IndiGo, on several facets concerning talent acquisition and how the carrier was gearing up to maintain its high customer service levels amid an anticipated growth in the passenger count in the coming months and years. Excerpts from a free-wheeling telephonic interaction:
Raj Raghavan (RR): Since your question is about our hiring philosophy, I think it will be good for you to know a bit about our culture and philosophy and its several aspects and nuances.
Let me start with how a customer tends to make up her mind about us. As an example, she is probably interacting with at least 8-10 airline staff, and each of them leaves an impact on her. However, for our customer, it is IndiGo she is dealing with and not that particular employee alone. She interacts with them without knowing them, even as they provide her with various facets of customer service. These 8-10 employees work across different verticals within the airline, essentially supporting our customers. For an airline of our size, with a fleet of 280+ airplanes and upward of 23,000 employees, it translates into about 90 to 95 employees per aircraft. Yes, you need that many people to help you fly on a plane!
Coming to your hiring philosophy question, the most visible of these customer-facing roles are our pilots and the cabin attendants. Therefore, much of our hiring get focused on these two categories. Additionally, aircraft engineers are a significant part of our workforce and significant time and attention go into getting these awesome technicians on board as well. Airport Operations and Customer Service personnel are the other groups of employees that interact with our customers the moment they arrive at the airport to check-in, collect boarding passes, get their bags and board along with them, etc. A lesser-known fact is that much of the airline’s security on the plane is also managed by the airline. These are staff who undertake boarding-point security checks, etc.
Some invisible roles are the baggage handlers and the pushback operators, among others. (For the uninitiated, pushback operators handle small car-like machines to push the aircraft onto the tarmac before take-off). All of these are highly-skilled roles. The roles I am talking about are all certified by the regulator as most of an airline’s operations are regulated functions. Add to this the professionals to manage our Operations Control Center, Load and Trim Operations and the ever-important Flight Safety function.
Additionally, we have the catering function focused on looking after the customer’s culinary needs. Beyond that, traditional functions such as finance, legal, human resources, etc., add value by supporting our operations. Sales, Network Planning and Revenue Management in an airline are equally specialized roles. These are not akin to the sales roles you would find in a typical FMCG company. Another specialized role is that of Aircraft Acquisition and Financing – another super-specialist area that is not taught in any management school.
RR: Sure. For instance, revenue management is about how you ensure the right pricing of a ticket, which depends on a variety of moving parts like the season, frequency, load factor and demand. The concept of dynamic pricing depends on all of the above. In addition, during pandemic situations like what we are going through now, the Government also determines a low-high band for each sector. The key is to make sure that specific routes get a certain fare that is both good for the passenger and the airline. Then we have the network planning function that manages the entire network of the airline operation. For example, how many trips we should undertake between two metros or between a metro and a non-metro is managed by this team. This also includes determining the un-serviced non-metros that need air connectivity and how many international routes the airline should fly. In addition to providing answers to these questions, the network planning function works with both the regulator and the airports for flying slots as well as parking spaces.
The complexity of where you park the planes is an interesting one. We have 280-odd planes, which makes us the airline with the largest fleet in India. Parking space and rates need to be negotiated with airports beforehand. As a passenger, you may be flying from, say, Coimbatore to New Delhi on a 7 o’clock morning departure. For all you know, the plane may not be parked in Coimbatore the previous night. It may be parked in Cochin instead! As a network planner, you need a set of crews based in Cochin to fly the plane almost empty, sometimes full, from Cochin to Coimbatore. HR supports the hiring for all these skills. Therefore, there are different specializations.
Let us take an example of how we go about hiring pilots. There are several categories of pilots. As a young pilot, one starts as a Junior First Officer, sitting on the right seat of the plane. She has the potential to grow all the way up to a Designated Examiner who also serves as a senior commander. There are several career ladders within the pilot ecosystem. So, after a certain number of hours of flying, a Junior First Officer can grow to a First Officer, then a Senior First Officer, then a Captain. She would then become a Senior Captain, then a Fleet Supervisor, a Fleet Captain, with very few making it to becoming the Chief Pilot. Most senior Captains also move as Training Instructors and eventually Designated Examiners. Again, these are highly regulated roles.
I would add that it is not just about hiring them but also about ensuring that those hired get the opportunity to undergo various regulatory training and certifications to enable them to fly.
RR: Yes, of course. Our hiring strategy for pilots starts with what I call “sowing the grains for my harvest.” Let me begin with the ‘Cadet Program.’ A cadet is someone who has not had any training in flying. She could be a 10+2 graduate with a science and math specialization. However, most of our cadets are often undergrad degree holders. They could be engineers or science graduates. We collaborate with different flying schools worldwide and participate in identifying these budding pilots. We identify them as soon as they sign up for the training school to the time they get certified on a certain type of aircraft- which is called ‘type rating.’ (It is a licensing agency certification for an airline pilot to fly a specific aircraft, which requires additional training.) We participate in designing and also sometimes co-teaching the curriculum.
IndiGo operates two types of aircraft fleet- Airbus and ATR. Airbus further has two configurations, i.e., A320 and A321. Flying each of these will require a specific ‘type rating.’ We have a dedicated team working only on recruiting cadets. Another team recruits Junior First Officers, with the intention that we are self-sufficient in about two to three years and do not hire Captains from outside. Here is where our talent management process also kicks in. Our recruiting team ensures we have enough talent at the candidate stage, capable of becoming Junior First Officers, ensuring that we have sufficient talent at each stage, i.e., JFO’s, First Officers and all the way to Captains. This means that the HR team works closely with other business teams such as Network Planning, Aircraft Acquisition, etc.
IndiGo’s human resources and hiring functions work very closely with the business because we are not like an IT services company where we have the luxury of having several people sitting on the bench. Pilots, as well as airplanes, are costly resources. A typical A320 costs anywhere between USD50-60million. You need to ensure these planes are flying and not grounded. Therefore, we work closely with the network planning teams, operations control and flight operations teams to get the right pilots’ hiring strategy.
Akin to the cadet program for pilots, we also have a management trainee program for corporate functions. We hire a handful of MBA graduates who start at the Financial Planning and Analysis function and then rotate to other functional areas. This is a two-year program after which the incumbent moves to a role of her choice within IndiGo, not limited to just FP&A.
My recruiting team is vastly skilled. On the one hand, they hire pilots and on the other, they hire engineer trainees who can become aircraft maintenance technicians and then be certified, not to mention baggage handlers; and yes, I forgot to mention even CXO talent! We take a lot of pride in how we have developed our Engineering talent-hiring for one.
RR: Firstly, one needs to be a certified engineer to touch anything on the airplane. And these certifications need to be current all the time. If you forget to renew your license, you will not be allowed to undertake any servicing or maintenance, irrespective of your skills. It is almost like having your driver’s license current all the time. But this is beyond just the driver’s license as the license holder needs to undergo recurring training and certifications periodically. So, this is another complexity.
As for the Management Trainee Program, we hire management trainees from B-schools. We work closely with the Indian School of Business (ISB) and a few IIMs, etc. We have a strong management training program and a robust internship program. Overall, having been in several industries, I should admit that recruitment in the airline industry is truly fascinating. And it is all the more fulfilling if you are working in a growth-oriented company like IndiGo!
RR: We take pride in our ability to solve business problems. We do not work “HR Backwards” but “Business Forward.” Having said this, one thing that we have been able to do well in IndiGo is to move people across HR roles. Typically, in an IT services company or even in a technology company, a recruiter often does not become an HR partner. An HR partner does not become a talent management professional. A talent management professional does not get into employee engagement, and an employee engagement professional doesn’t get into compensation and benefits. One of the things we have tried to do in the last three years at IndiGo is to rotate professionals across these functions. Many of our highly successful senior HR partners have been recruiters once, and senior HR partners assume leadership roles. You do not get into specialization and get typecast as a recruiter for the rest of your life. You could do a bunch of other things.
RR: These are several questions! So, I’ll take them one by one. First and foremost, I believe that hiring is a critical component of the human resource function. Talent acquisition needs to be done exceptionally well. To me, candidate experience is as important as the employee experience, which is as important as the customer experience. After hiring, we need to be able to integrate people into the organization after they are hired. I’m also curious to understand how employee experience impacts the customer experience. And the answer is probably obvious: If I’m not an engaged employee or not getting the right workplace experience, how would I provide the right experience to the customer? All this seems obvious. However, as a customer, my every interaction with the airline is only as good as the latest one that I have had.
A typical frequent flyer does about 12 roundtrips a year domestically. As an employee, though, I interact with hundreds of customers every day. So, my ability to provide customer service needs to be top-notch all the time, which is a tall order. How do you expect someone to be motivated 365 days a year and probably a hundred times a day? All of it boils down to how you deal with your employees. It starts with onboarding and training but also goes beyond just those two.
RR: We run a training academy called I-Fly. It is probably one of the most benchmarked training academies in the airline industry worldwide, not just in India.
RR: It’s at two places. The biggest one is in Gurugram, and we also have a smaller academy in Bengaluru. And at any given point of time during the pre-COVID days, we could have about a thousand people physically attending training each day. On any given day, you would have about 70 simultaneous courses. These courses can range from regulatory knowledge, soft skills, analytic, flight simulations and cabin crew training.
At IndiGo, we invest significant time helping people learn to provide customer service and safety even as we ensure on-time performance. As an example, each of our cabin crew undergoes a 90-day training program before they board a plane. And these 90 days are both intense as well as fun and often interspersed with tests and exams. It’s as though you are in a learning and testing loop.
RR: We used to hire 8000 people a year during the pre-COVID days but have always had a very high bias toward promoting people from within. We have reasonably strong performance management and talent management culture coupled with competitive compensation and an employee engagement program. And I mentioned employee experience earlier. Now, how do you know that you provide an enhanced employee experience? One way is to measure the employee experience much the same way you measure customer experience.
RR: We have identified those 15-20 areas that impact an employee. As an HR Leader, can I influence each of them that results in enhancing the workplace experience of an employee? And that’s what we try to find with our ‘6e Speaks’ pulse survey program. It is not your typical once-in-a-year employee satisfaction survey. It happens continuously. Every employee at IndiGo receives 5 to 7 multiple choice questions every 15 days. ‘6e Speaks’ also allows employees to give verbatim answers. Imagine I answer about 12-14 questions a month, thereby providing about 160-180 responses a year all across. Research also shows that employees do not always feel the same about the same question across the year. So, our questions get answered multiple times, which means we get inputs on the same variable multiple times across the year.
For example, an employee may be comfortable with compensation today. I want to know if she feels the same way eight months or one year from now. It is important to keep an eye on employee experience continually.
To me, human resources is also a deep science that requires deep core competence. In science, you make decisions using not only anecdotes but also data.
Our ‘6E Speaks’ data may indicate that people are extremely satisfied with certain working conditions, but we also ask open-ended questions. We try to decipher those open-ended questions to see if people think the same way even as they numerically answer a specific question.
We also have an “experimentation” mindset within the team. And these experiments have resulted in the launch of newer programs. For example, we have something known as the ‘Benevolent’ scheme. The scheme offers financial support in the unfortunate event of an employee’s passing away. While we are all covered by term insurance where a certain sum is provided in case of such eventualities, our ‘Benevolent scheme’ seeks voluntary contributions in addition to what the deceased employee’s family will receive over and above the insured sum. For example, in an unfortunate incident of passing away of one of our colleagues, we would contribute, say, INR 500. With 23000 employees contributing INR 500, each makes a fair sum on top of the insurance sum offered by the company.
RR: Yes, we have many aptitude tests that we use – and one example is to test how a candidate tries to solve a customer problem. One needs to be able to understand the customer’s viewpoint in order to solve her problem. We also use various aptitude tests for engineers, for example. In addition, we have customer service aptitude tests, and these are validated tests across millions of people. We use them as a basis to not select or reject but as an input for training going forward.
RR: Frankly, how competition hires does not matter to me because I am obsessed with how we hire at IndiGo. As I mentioned earlier, we are obsessed with our customers, not with competition. As a result, I want to ensure that our hiring, training, onboarding and employee experience methodologies are all top-notch. It does not matter to me how other players in the aviation sector do them!
RR: We use a competency-based interviewing methodology. We have a set of core values, i.e., low fares, on-time performance, and hassle-free customer service. They are then subdivided into various smaller domains. We use them in our interviews to discuss, for example, the ways to achieve low fares. That would also mean how do you lower your costs, which also means being frugal. So, does frugality come naturally to you? We ask questions on such issues.
I told you about hassle-free customer service. This also means that we need to hire and develop those who are obsessed with providing a top-notch customer experience. How do we know that? This is where behavior-oriented questions come in handy. I would say: give me an example from the X, Y or Z scenario that gives evidence of your customer service attitude. Of course, in addition, we also use many instruments during our training and talent development initiatives. We buy these instruments externally, which we use more for development than anything else. When we interview a candidate, we expect our interviewer to take ample notes and provide them in the written form and keep them along with her hiring documentation.
RR: Correct. These are meant for executive positions.
Originally published May 17 2021, Updated May 17 2021
Shashank has been working in the publishing and online industry for eight-plus years now. He has donned many hats and has reported on diverse industry verticals, including aviation, tourism, hospitality, etc. He is currently the senior editor at Mercer | Mettl.
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