Air travel’s personnel have become iconic faces of something that was marketed not only as a mode of transport, but as an experience. Whilst glossy ideas of 1950s air hostesses and dashing pilots may be outdated, the reality is that aviation relies on extremely talented and dedicated individuals. Without them, our experience would not be as comfortable, as catered to or as safe – in fact, it wouldn’t happen at all. We rest easier knowing that these people are looking after us, but who is looking after them? We spoke with Espen Høiby, founder and CEO of OSM Aviation, about how his crew management company is going against the trends of their industry to the benefit of airlines and crew members alike.
Høiby’s life has been a love-affair with flying. Starting his flight training in America, 1979, he worked as a pilot in Texas for four years before transferring home to a small commuter company in Norway. His career has ranged from commercial flights to piloting air ambulances, and he even served as a Chief Flight Instructor for the SAS. In 2013, as captain of a long-haul, he felt the call to look for new horizons – this time on the ground.
“I’ve had a fantastic career in aviation. I achieved my goal, and then I came up with a new idea for the sector. It took me a year to quit this job that many other people would give their right hand away for, but once I had made the decision, I knew it was right. I said ‘Yes, I’ve had a fantastic career, and now I’m ready to move on to new endeavours.’” Despite the call of the air, these new endeavours spoke to Høiby, because they would help a group of people very close to his heart – pilots, and other crew members within the aviation industry. “Inspired by the achievements of OSM Maritime Group – a leading international staffing and crew management firm in the maritime and offshore industry – I teamed up with Bjørn Tore Larsen, OSM Maritime Group’s founder, and set up OSM Aviation.” The new company would seek to change how the industry looked after its employees, and save airlines money into the bargain.
“We entered this market by introducing a new business model of how to employ, attract and actually manage crews,” Espen explains. “When we take someone on, we take the risk of employing that person full time with an open-ended contract, and then we make sure that they get a job with various airlines.” OSM Aviation’s approach is a bold one, opening themselves up to potential risk, but in doing so, proving their confidence in their services and offering crew members financial security and peace of mind. “If for some reason, crew members were not engaged in an airline, they would get a full salary from us. We needed to differ ourselves – we needed to take care of that crew. If we weren’t willing to take that risk, we wouldn’t have a different model to the competition.”
In aviation, the need for the sort of stability that OSM Aviation offer answers an increasingly real need. “What’s been going on in this industry for the past 20 years, is there’s been lots of industries putting people out on short-term contracts, from six months to three years. We’re giving a predictable future to these crew members, and more security.”
If this wasn’t enough, OSM Aviation are able to provide their employees with the other element that professionals crave: opportunity. Not only can an OSM Aviation employ relax in the knowledge of where their next paycheque will come from, they can pursue their career with more flexibility and ambition than was previously open on the aviation ladder. Espen, who has travelled this career path himself the old-fashioned way, elaborated; “If you look into the industry, especially on the pilot’s side, it has been very seniority driven. You start with a legacy carrier such as British Airways, and you go from the youngest co-pilot on short-haul through to captain of long haul, and then you retire. That was your career, and there was no room for side-movement without starting from scratch at the new airline. With our system, we’re breaking up that seniority list a little bit.” OSM Aviation are introducing freer movement of staff, allowing pilots and other crew members to transfer between companies at their same position. As with all jobs, there are many reasons why employees choose to transfer, and one would like the freedom to do so without falling backwards; this new flexibility, Espen feels, could even let ambitious employees rise the ranks quicker than was traditionally possible.
This may be good news for crew members, but what do the airlines make of it? Independent airlines have responded with enthusiasm, seeing that the proposal will benefit them as well; the model offers airlines greater flexibility in their hiring, and will also save them money; “We’re currently in talks with many airlines, but what I can say in general is that they’re very interested in this new model. Having crew employed in a geographically diversified structure is more cost effective. If you employ a crew member in Spain vs employing a crew member in Norway, there is a cost difference there, so airlines are looking to hire crew in the areas where they operate.” Co-ordinating this via OSM Aviation, airlines don’t need to juggle the tax and other issues of taking on overseas employees themselves.
Their influence doesn’t stop there. One airline – Finnair – was so taken by OSM Aviation’s efficiency and approach that they have assigned the company total crew management for their long-haul operations in Singapore and Hong Kong; “We do everything – we do the recruitment, we do the training, we do the management, we even draw up their crews’ schedules. This is our top project. We are able to get higher scores on customer satisfaction than Finnair had three years ago, and we’re very proud of that.”
Other large legacy carriers, however, are slower to adopt the new model. Høiby doesn’t seem surprised by this, and neither does he seem phased by the additional work this front will require. He knows the aviation world well, and he’s right at home navigating its culture. “It takes longer with the legacy airlines,” he explains simply. “They’ll say things like, yes this looks interesting, we’d like to do it in the future, but we’re looking at it in a five to eight year perspective. But, we know that this will come, and I predict it will come sooner rather than later.”
Confident in his model, and all too aware of the difficulties crew members and airlines face without it, Espen is content to wait for the inevitable. In the meantime, OSM Aviation are working to change company perspectives; “People are sensitive about the idea of ‘transferring to another team’. There is so much loyalty attached to these logos, and I think for me to try to change these emotional attachments for the senior guys today will be a challenge. The real paradigm shift will be with the younger generation. As a generation, they are more prone to switch jobs – they are not as attached to the companies they started with as people used to be. I think we will see this trend occurring in the aviation industry as well.”
Speaking of trends, OSM Aviation’s innovative model isn’t only beginning to turn heads in the airlines themselves – their competition are beginning to recognise a shift in the tide, and have started mimicking the approach themselves. Once again, the unshakable ex-pilot doesn’t seem concerned; “I think this is good – the market will get more acceptance for this solution, which I believe is the future employment model in the industry. Competition is welcome – we’d like the challenge.
“One of the pillars of our strategy is being locally present in our markets. We have people in Spain, the UK, the US – 18 countries in total. We know about the local labour markets. It would take a lot of persistence from other players to establish themselves in all these countries.”
For Espen, being a pilot was always the dream, although he didn’t realise how far back this went until much later. “I actually found an essay in my garage that I wrote in fifth grade. It started, ‘Welcome aboard the SAS flight bound for Tokyo. This is your captain speaking… ‘, and then I had an essay for four or five pages about my trip. I realise that I’ve achieved my dreams from when I was a kid, and I’ve done everything I can within this career.”
It’s the statement we all hope to be able to make. Espen has done it, and now he’s looking to help others begin their journey with the training to take them all the way. “In October, we announced a flight school, and we are already beginning initial training. We will take people from the streets and provide airline-ready pilots to the market, because there’s currently a great demand for pilots in the market, and sourcing them is a challenge.” One of the key hooks for OSM’s new flight school is the promise of a job at the end. “We want to provide a total career, because the training is a very heavy investment for a young person around 20 years old, if they don’t know what’s going to be out the other end. We can recruit the best people into the schools, make them airline ready, and then offer them a job with OSM Aviation.”
It was a risk to leave well-chartered routes and venture into new skies, but for Høiby, it was an educated one: “My time with SAS was a great learning experience. I was associated with the SAS Flight Academy for 15 years, and I was head of operations over 700 pilots at the Oslo base. All this knowledge acquired in that time, both in flying and as a flight instructor, has really helped me gain the background I needed.” A strong background or not, starting a new venture and convincing others to follow you in it takes a clear vision. With a genuine passion for his industry, Høiby had the energy and courage to create something truly original, and to fight its corner whilst it became a success. “To win, you have to dare to lose. If you’re going to create something, you have to dare to leap into something new. It’s a bold move, and you have to start by leading yourself. If you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others.” Now leading others in earnest, between their flight school and crew management approach, OSM Aviation should continue to change aviation in the years to come, giving freedom to airlines and essential, life-changing security to employees.