With over a hundred destinations in Europe and North Africa, the Dutch airline Transavia is fast becoming a powerhouse of affordable and client-centric travel. In an exclusive sit-down with 21CC Education, Transavia CEO Mattijs ten Brink talks about technology, innovation, and logistics.
How has Transavia grown over the past few years, especially over the last few years while you’ve been at the helm of the company?
We have sharpened the low-cost aspect of Transavia. We have transformed from an old- fashioned chartered product for tour operators to a regular airline service using the low-cost model. The drive behind these changes has been to achieve a huge shift towards digitalisation and, particularly, to improve the convenience factor for our travellers. Providing a truly seamless product [to the travellers] while maintaining the human aspect is very important, but very hard to do.
Our company philosophy is to be on every platform where customers search for flights. We want to make flying accessible to the general public and to accommodate diverse passengers, ranging from a fashionable golf player to a common beach bum. We are also continuously working towards removing barriers for people with reduced mobility and for older people to make travel easier for everyone.
Our customers always say, “You are really different”. The Dutch hospitality prevails. Our people are able to make a connection [with the passengers]. I always urge new colleagues and staff to be and remain themselves, despite all the training they receive, because that is what enriches the company. Our goal is to connect with our passengers, to hear them exchange Transavia stories. That is why we do what we do. The rest is just necessary conditioning: safe flying and being on time.
We choose not to focus on the experience of the passengers, but more on the experience of our own people. I’m deeply convinced that if our people feel pride, feel that they matter, if they realise that they have the opportunities to develop, if they have trust that they can do their job well, that they will also radiate that to our passengers. We may never be as big as our competition but that it is also what gives us the opportunity to interact directly with our own people.
We have a family culture where people get along very well, but that also means that things go unmentioned sometimes. That needs to change. To that end, we are bringing in more sharpness, more ‘result-orientedness’ [into our culture].
How have you been able to bring in these changes in the culture of your company?
Partly through experience, when you are in the business for 30 years, you see and learn about what works and what doesn’t, [partly] out of a strong belief that people can do more than they think they can if you put them at the right position and take care of them, and partly by continuously developing myself through trainings, seminars, and reading books and articles. I don’t put myself explicitly in the centre of the organisation and I know that I am just as much a part of the solution as a part of the problem. I want to say to people: “I will keep on learning and developing myself, and I want to do that with you; are you with me?” That gives them a totally different impression than when you say, “I know very well how everything needs to be done, I’ll just show it to you”.
“I’m deeply convinced that if our people feel pride, feel that they matter, if they realise that they have the opportunities to develop, if they have trust that they can do their job well, that they will also radiate that to our passengers.”
What learning methods does Transavia use? How important is learning to you?
We are working on finding new ways of learning that is attuned to the new generation. When I see how my children learn French, I notice that it is very different from what we did. We are always looking for new methods. We are looking at new ways to train people, in a faster, better, and broader way.
Currently, we are trying to hone our people through free learning, working together with different companies that offer us e-learning, leadership and personality development.The next step is to make developments less dependent on me so that developments become easily transferable within the organisation. This especially applies to our frontline services, our stewards and our pilots who are visible to the public. As for ground staff and other people we hire, we are looking at how we can incorporate our philosophy of thinking with them, and how far we want to take this.
If you could look into the future and tell young people around the world what to do, what would you tell them?
A lot is happening everywhere around the world. It is all about mobility. In my opinion, that’s the industry of the future, whether it is moving people or moving packages. Mobility nowadays is getting increasingly complex because of environmental limitations and other complexities. At the same time a lot is happening in the digital field, and combining those two is an exciting opportunity. We understand the impact of 3D printing on logistics, or blockchains when it comes to secured chains and transferring information. That is going to have an enormous impact and nobody understands exactly how, not even I, but it is becoming very big, and I hope in a very positive manner.
One of the reasons why I entered logistics after studying Economics is because there is no separation of office and work. In logistics, you will probably find the head office located in the midst of all the action, not located far away from it. It is this “what you see is what you get” factor that gives a huge down-to-earth mentality to a logistics organisation. For example, when you enter the head office of Unilever, you don’t find a meat factory, because that is based in South America or wherever. But logistics is being produced where you are, here and now.
At the head office of Transavia we do not make the product, but we do continuously interact with the passengers. Eighty per cent of our people are in direct contact with the passengers or their colleagues—that is logistics. Being close to the core process, being part of a chain—and logistics is always about long and complex value chains—lends a unique mentality to people. You can say it is complex, but it is also very cool because people are constantly working closely together. It goes on 24X7—something somewhere will always go wrong; it never stops.
Logistics is all about network organisations: within our business everything is connected to each other. All parties should be able to add value to the chain, but also get value out of it. Otherwise the chain will not work. You can see that people who have been working in these chains are often very open and receptive. However, the downside is that this is probably not the best paid job in the world. You have got to love it. You really have to give something personal to the product, constantly be on your toes—the telephone never stops ringing. That’s sometimes the problem for some companies: there are now major employment shortages in some areas of logistics; it might not be very appealing at first sight and people choose other industries to work in.
“We are working on finding new ways of learning that is attuned to the new generation. When I see how my children learn French, I notice that it is very different from what we did. We are always looking for new methods. We are looking at new ways to train people, in a faster, better, and broader way.”
What kind of innovations do you foresee in the coming future?
Companies need to assess where they are right now. For example, baggage handling companies must ask themselves why they spend so much time pushing all those kilograms with
no added value through the most expensive, complex and secured square kilometres in the world: the airport. They can, of course, say that they are “just a handler” and continue to do what they have been doing for years, but suppose that they are able to ‘unburden’ airlines by innovating the entire baggage process (off airport) and bring an entirely new perspective in the handling business? So, I say conceptualise your job instead of doing an activity. Dare to think big. Push for broader ways of cooperation, look beyond your own boundaries at the total chain and cooperate with others.
There is another thing which I think is pretty cool: KLM is building the hangar of the future. More digital, with less manpower needed. With glass hangar doors, so sunlight is allowed to come in. It was an expensive risk they took, solely from the conviction to make the work for people more fun. I’m certain it will pay off.
I believe the important questions to ask ourselves are: How can we distribute value? How can we continue to create value? How can we include everyone in the chain? This mindset is only applied in logistics. A lot of innovation is required in every aspect of logistics but most of it relates to the social aspect. Successful innovation is 25% technical, the rest comprises soft skill —structure and culture. It has nothing to do with technology. We can find enough parties to explain blockchain to us, but then what? We must be an organisation that is capable of executing, implementing and translating ideas into value for our passengers and our own people. And that’s what we are focussing on. That is the culture that we need—to continuously develop, to act quickly—and the rest will come.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.