Launched in 1983 with three aircraft and 280 employees, America West now serves 96 destinations across North America and Central America. From its Phoenix hub, the airline offers more non-stop service and departures than any other carrier.
Award-winning service is key to America West’s success. Entrepreneur magazine voted America West the Best Major Airline for two consecutive years—citing the carrier’s responsiveness to business travelers and its business-friendly fares. At the core of this superior customer service stands a well-trained staff of 13,000.
Because airlines face extensive regulatory and legal compliance requirements, training presents a significant challenge. Not only must new employees be trained, but ongoing employee training is also necessary to comply with new FAA maintenance and operations directives.
Until 2000, most of America West’s training was conducted at the company’s Phoenix and Las Vegas education centers, with additional training done in a workbook fashion. Training a single passenger service employee—a three-week effort—cost between $3,000 and $5,000. Multiplied by thousands of employees, America West’s annual training costs climbed into the millions.
So in 2003, America West launched its e-learning initiative, choosing Oracle iLearning as the platform for its learning management system (LMS). For developing course content, America West chose Macromedia Flash, an Oracle partner. Implementation began in early 2004 with rollout to the company’s 1,200 reservation agents.
For the first phase of e-learning implementation, America West chose tasks that lend themselves easily to computer-based training (CBT)—learning city codes and function keys, and acquiring basic keyboard skills. To “sweeten” repetitive and often tedious tasks, America West developed an imaginative suite of learning games. For example, to teach the city codes uniquely identifying each airport, America West’s developers created a timed, two-minute game requiring students to populate a map of the United States with the correct city codes. The player is scored on the number of cities correctly identified. “People just played this as a game,” Tony Willis, director of training and development at America West, explained. “They didn’t realize it was a learning process.”
Another game plays an important role in maintaining award-winning customer service, teaching the function keypad to agents by simulating the very real-world situation of waiting callers. Based on the student’s speed completing common reservation tasks correctly, the queue of callers increases or decreases. The longer callers are in the queue, the angrier they become. This course has already proven its value in training agents on new skills in an entertaining fashion.
Employee response to the new system was enthusiastic—especially from experienced agents. Classes previously requiring an hour or more of class time now can be completed in as little as half the time—convenient for employees and more productive for the airline. Not only are employees learning more, but they also are learning in a framework that fits their schedules and interests.
As America West continues to roll out the LMS, the company will save even more money than the cost for ongoing training required for regulatory compliance. Furthermore, America West will realize additional savings because the system automates government-mandated record-keeping and increases the accuracy of records and reports.
The company also anticipates saving thousands of dollars per each employee from reduced travel expenses and fewer instructor-led classes.
As important as savings in time and money are, Willis also points to organizational benefits like course consistency and completeness, and increased information retention. In addition, by automating rote learning, the LMS helps America West maximize use of its training resources.
Willis offers advice to other companies considering e-learning and CBT. First, he stresses that “no solution is plug-and-play, no matter what the salesman says. Be prepared to modify the software. Put a dedicated team in place to ensure a smooth and successful implementation.”
Second, he emphasizes the importance of seamless integration between the content-authoring tool and the e-learning platform. “Many vendors will claim to have seamless integration, but you need to look below the surface,” Willis said. “Integration must be automatic—push a button and the content is published. It has to be that simple.”
Finally, Willis reminds executives that e-learning isn’t a magic bullet. “The best education program is one that combines both e-learning and instructor-led classes and leverages the unique benefits of each,” he said.