Profile: Simon Charles, HR director, Flybe

The state of the UK airline industry reads like an updated version of the Dickens novel Hard Times. Carriers currently face exorbitant fuel prices, budget crunches, constant scrutiny by the ‘green police’, and now even the recent chaos at British Airways’ new Terminal 5 conspires against them.

But this isn’t the case for Flybe, Europe’s largest low-cost regional airline, which recently announced 34 new routes for the coming summer season.

Flybe is positioned successfully in one of the toughest markets, but manages to avoid the London rush associated with the industry by being based in Exeter, Devon, in south-west England. It focuses on regional routes, operating from a total of 55 departure points including 25 UK and 30 European airports, flying from more UK airports than any other carrier.

It’s precisely the regional lifestyle away from London that brought its HR director, Simon Charles, to the carrier in the first place. He joined Flybe in January 2007, prior to which he was group director of organisation and people development at food company RHM.

Flight path

Charles’ HR experience spans 20 years, and includes roles at household goods and food giant Unilever, consulting firm Pricewater­houseCoopers and soft drinks company PepsiCo, plus time as European HR director at food manufacturer Quaker Oats.

So why the move from a series of major conglomerates to a comparatively small company in a completely different market?

“I have worked in companies where the workforce has ranged from 10,000 people to hundreds of thousands,” says Charles. “My decision to move to Devon with my family was a deliberate one.

“From an HR point of view, I wanted to see a scenario where a course of action was put into place on a Monday, with results visible almost immediately. In HR, it’s always pleasing to see the fruits of your labour, and working at Flybe, I get to see that everyday,” he says.

And Charles regards his move to the regions as a win-win decision. His appointment marks the first time that an HR director has sat on the board at Flybe in its 30-year existence.

Since he joined, as is always the case in the low-cost airline space, things have moved quickly. In March last year, Flybe acquired British Airways’ BA Connect regional airline business, which at the time was losing £40m per annum. This doubled the size of the company to 3,000 staff, creating a huge HR challenge for Charles.

“I was particularly keen to join a company with a blank canvas in terms of HR. Flybe provided that opportunity and wanted to invest seriously in this function,” he says.

The ink had barely dried on his business card when Charles made his first strategic HR move by appointing five key business partners. “Four are aligned with key groups including pilots and engineers, cabin crew, ground service and headquarters and a call centre, while the other partner focuses on learning and development,” he explains.

The company has 15 HR staff with a ratio of 200 to one, and there is a service centre staffed by senior HR officers.

HR destinations

One of several HR goals at Flybe is to engage with staff through line managers. “We are only part of the way through the journey and by enabling our line managers, we ensure best HR practice. I would emphasise that we do not police our staff,” adds Charles.

Another task is the recruitment of pilots and engineers, which, being based in the regions, isn’t always as easy as it sounds. “It’s not as simple as being based in Heathrow”.

But how does the HR team manage to deliver within the tight budgets required by a low-cost airline?

“We are low cost, that’s our business, and this is reflected in our culture, which is refreshingly simple,” Charles enthuses.

He keeps a close eye on performance management against the expectations of the business. So later this year, Flybe will launch a formal performance management scheme – although Charles is already able to demonstrate the level of employee engagement and workforce stability through an annual absence rate of 3.8%, with attrition at 15%.

“The proportion of employees with at least 12 months’ service is at 80%, which shows great stability,” he says. “I am a believer in real initiatives that are going to make a difference and, therefore, do not do HR for HR’s sake.”

In January this year, Flybe joined McDonald’s and Network Rail as the first companies to be allowed to award nationally recognised qualifications through their training programmes. The three firms will be able to accredit their own training equivalent to GCSEs, A-levels and degrees.

This initiative has not been without its critics, however, so why has Charles decided to stick his neck out and get Flybe involved in offering qualifications?

“Its important that people have portable skills across industry,” he says, but adds that it should not be seen as dumbing down, as some critics have suggested, because the qualifications on offer are vocational.

Flybe is currently working with employers’ group GoSkills to turn the offering into a practical solution. The carrier is committed to the government’s skills agenda, as highlighted by the Leitch Report of December 2006. In response to the need for real vocational skills, Flybe will also be launching an apprenticeship scheme, Flybe Academy, “which will get people in real jobs within four years”, says Charles.

Being a regional employer, Flybe insists it has a great passion and responsibility to the area, and it recently appointed Exeter College as its lead academic partner for its new training academy.

The further education college, in collaboration with the University of Exeter, will be involved in training the existing 3,000 Flybe staff. Based locally, the training facility will house learning solutions for employees across the airline’s range of job functions, and is expected to create further job opportunities in the South West. The aim is to award skills credits up to Level 4.

The company continues its regional community involvement by sponsoring Exeter, Southampton, Norwich and Inverness Caledonian Thistle football teams.

Going green

Community involvement is all very well, but shouldn’t an airline also be paying greater attention to its carbon footprint? Aviation emissions have doubled since 1990, albeit from a very low base, and are predicted to double again by 2020.

Charles claims that Flybe is at the forefront of the efforts by the airlines to reduce the environmental impact of air travel and promote sustainable growth in the aviation industry. As Europe’s largest regional airline, it has a responsibility to reduce the carbon emissions produced by its aircraft, he believes. But he refuses to let the airline industry take all the blame for climate change.

“There have been some misconceptions about how big the airline industry’s footprint is,” he insists. “The Stern Report found that 1.6% of global carbon emissions come from aeroplanes.”

And being a regional airline has created even greater responsibility, “both in terms of the economic growth we stimulate and the effect upon the local environment of the communities we serve”, he adds.

Flybe has recently invested $US3bn (£1.5bn) in two new fleets, namely the Embraer 195 and Bombardier Q400 aircraft, which burn 30% less fuel than the aeroplanes they replace. The investment programme will also see the eventual phasing out of its older fleet.

“Our aircraft fleet burn fuel more efficiently to emit less carbon and, crucially for the local communities in which we operate, keep noise to an absolute minimum,” explains Charles.

In an industry first, Flybe also began producing an ‘eco label’ for its aircraft in June 2007. The label, modelled on those used in the sale of white goods such as fridges, microwaves and washing machines, shows a full range of environmental indicators per aircraft. The labels are presented in a clear and transparent way as part of the online ticket booking process.

As a board-level HR director, Charles plays an important part in creating the airline’s green agenda, but at the end of the day, it’s the people who make the flight experience great for customers.

“Whether it be running flights on time, good customer service, or safety and general efficiency, passion, simplicity, agility and people are the key to our organisation,” says Charles. To this end, Flybe has recently launched a major leadership development initiative for line managers.

“This will contribute significantly towards more inclusive staff engagement across our dispersed geographies and take us to the next stage of our journey,” he says.

And in the words of his literary namesake, Charles continues to have ‘great expectations’ for the HR industry, having embarked on a journey that has already taken him to great heights.

CV: Simon Charles

  • 2007 onwards: Director of HR, Flybe

  • 2004-2006: Divisional HR director andgroup director of organisation and people development, RHM

  • 1999-2004: European HR director,Quaker Oats

  • 1998-1999: Senior HR consultant,PricewaterhouseCoopers

  • 1993-1998: HR manager, Swansea factory (Walkers), HR manager sales and marketing (Walkers), European compensation and benefits manager, PepsiCo

  • 1989-1993: UCMDS graduate training scheme, assistant personnel manager, Gloucester ice cream site, Unilever

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