Earlier this year, airBaltic’s cabin crew members Anna Stola and Mihails Iņutins won a gold medal in the prestigious international competition International Sales Person of the Year. Competing together as a team, they were awarded for the quality of their onboard service in the Sales as a Service category. The competition took place in London and was organised by ISPY International. The duo’s first-place showing does not come as a surprise, as Anna and Mihails are open, humorous and intelligent professionals with a great love for their job and the people around them. This was the 15th edition of the annual competition, which aims to raise the level of service in aviation all across the world, and which saw the participation of flight attendants from nearly 30 airlines. 

First of all, congratulations on your victory! What made you decide to take part in the competition?

Mihails: In this competition, flight attendants were evaluated on how well they work as a team. But before that, there was also an internal competition among the cabin crew members of airBaltic. We had to put forth the candidacy of those colleagues who we felt were best suited for the competition. 

Anna: The news that I had been selected to take part came so unexpectedly! For several years in a row, I had won the product advertising competitions at our airline’s annual service training sessions, but I never thought of myself as a suitable candidate for a competition of this scale. I even considered turning down the offer to participate, but Mihails was extremely supportive and a real driving force.

Mihails: This year, airBaltic took a strategically wise step and let us choose our own teammates. During the vetting process, Anna and I realised that we wanted to take part in the competition together as a team. 

Anna: Immediately after being evaluated for the competition at airBaltic, I felt that we would be chosen to represent the airline. We formed a natural and harmonious team, we worked well together and communicated easily, both with each other and with our clients

Mihails: We worked so well together that we were finishing each other’s sentences already during the evaluation phase at airBaltic! 

What did you have to do at the competition?

Mihails: We were evaluated under various categories such as brand awareness, product knowledge, features and benefits, and unique selling points. Of course, we were afraid of failing. Everybody was in a very positive frame of mind. There was no sense of rivalry and we all did our best to support each other
One of the tasks, for example, was to create an onboard menu card based on the airline’s profile and products. There was a really interesting workshop about the history of perfumes and the basics of perfume classification. We had a great opportunity to participate in a celebrity customer workshop conducted by Geoff Ramm. That was an inspirational seminar about making service outstanding at any time.

Anna: Despite being very well-prepared, we won due to factors that you can’t really learn beforehand: through teamwork, humour and empathy. For example, two of our colleagues from Turkey even booked a single hotel room together before the competition so that they could get to know each other better. We didn’t have to do anything like that. We just did what we usually do every day and acted naturally. We didn’t even realise that we can be such good people and learned a great deal not only about the service sphere, but also about ourselves. For example, previously I had almost never joked around with the passengers, because I had been afraid of being misunderstood or unintentionally offending somebody. At this competition, however, it was our natural openness and sense of humour that got us that gold medal. 

How long did the competition last?

Mihails: It lasted for four very intensive days. Already on the second day I said: “Anna, I don’t think that we have had a breath of fresh air for the past 48 hours!” Every day from 8 AM until 11 PM, we underwent training, evaluation and had events to attend. Only on the fourth day did we get the chance to go out on an excursion together for two hours.

Incidentally, how did you prepare for the competition?

Anna: I’m a real bookworm! I read the materials that they gave us and didn’t even let them out of my hands on the flights. It was a huge challenge for both of us, because we also had a very heavy workload at airBaltic. We were working a lot and also had to get ready for Christmas and the New Year. I’m a perfectionist and once I have set out to do something, I put everything that I have into it. I remember calling Misha [the affectionate diminutive term for “Mihail” in Russian – ed.] and asking him if he had read over what we still had to learn. He was always either sleeping or had just woken up or was just about to go to sleep! 

Mihails: We had completely different approaches to the study process. My method was to place the books under my pillow so that I could absorb the knowledge better! [Laughs.] I knew that if I wouldn’t be able to get a handle on something, then I could rely on Anna 100% to help bail me out.

Going back to the beginning of your careers, how did you both wind up at airBaltic?

Mihails: I joined airBaltic in 2010 and I remember stumbling upon an airBaltic junior cabin crew vacancy on a boring winter evening. I’m not one of those who has dreamed about flying since their childhood. I’ve always liked to work with people. My previous jobs were also in the service sphere, but I wanted to take a step upwards and literally ended up climbing higher than I had planned! 

Anna: I worked for two years in Oxford, England, and upon my return to Latvia I took a one-year break. Once that year had passed, I suddenly realised that I definitely want to work somewhere at the Riga airport. Already while I was at school, the psychological tests showed that I should work with people. It’s hard to imagine a setting with a greater flow of people than a busy airport. And so I went to the airport and said that I would like to work there. They immediately told me that they don’t need any workers, but suggested that I try my luck at airBaltic. I returned home disappointed, but I went onto airBaltic’s website, where I saw the announcement for a junior cabin crew vacancy. My knowledge of Latvian wasn’t perfect at the time, but I decided to take a risk and apply for the position. The job interview went very well. I still remember what we talked about and what simulations we went through. Soon Misha and I will mark our sixth year at airBaltic. Working as a stewardess really was “love at first sight” for me. I can’t imagine myself in any other sphere outside of aviation or working for any other airline but airBaltic.

Mihails: I feel the same way. Over the past few years, airBaltic has become like a second home and my colleagues like a large international family.

What do you like most about your job?

Anna and Mihails in unison: Our work colleagues! We are really fortunate to be with such a fantastic and supportive group of people. Many of our work relationships have turned into life-long friendships. 

Anna: Every day at work is different. The passengers change and so do the colleagues we work with on the flights, not to mention the aircraft and the flight destinations. This is a beautiful and dynamic job. Every flight has its charm. 

What do you like to do during your free time?

Anna: Since I have lived by the seaside all of my life, I really enjoy walking along the beach, especially with my dog. I also like spending time together with my husband and young daughter. On top of that, I love to read books!

Mihails: While everybody was out shopping in London, Anna came back with a whole library and forced me to buy some books as well! My favourite hobby is sleeping. [Laughs.] I like to spend my free time with my friends or go visit my parents.

What did you gain from the competition?

Anna: This competition definitely raised my self-esteem. No matter how hard things sometimes get, one has to face the challenges and break them, rather than letting them break you. 

Mihails: We were one of the smallest teams in the competition, and during the introduction evening I spoke with a stewardess from Air Canada, who said: “It’s not about the money or the size of the company; it's all about what’s inside of you!” That provided a very powerful emotional boost and made us think: “Why shouldn’t we succeed?” Despite being from a small country and a small airline, we are no less friendly and caring. Quite the contrary!

Anna: We would like to express our special thanks to a number of people at airBaltic, and particularly to service training manager Skaidrīte Bulmeistere. For years, she has been teaching us to treat each passenger like someone special, to fear nothing, to interact with the passengers, to give and to receive positive emotions. We would also like to thank Ilze Arkliņa and Aleksei Romanov for their support. BO