Passing on knowledge

Safety is the top priority for airBaltic. In order to keep up to high standards, every year all crew members have to pass theoretical and practical safety and emergency training courses. Agris Kalējs has worked as a cabin crew member for almost 20 years, and for the past seven of those years he’s been passing on his knowledge to both new and long-term colleagues. In this interview he reveals how safe are we on board and how aviation has changed in the past 20 years.

Firstly – how did you get into aviation?

It happened quite by accident. In 1985, shortly before Christmas, I heard an advertisement on the radio that the Aeroflot airline was looking for young men who had recently finished their military service to work as stewards. At the time, that was the only airline in the Soviet Union, and it had lots of bases in many different cities, including at the Riga Airport. I applied, passed all of the necessary exams, and three months later I was a steward working with deliveries of baggage, cargo, and mail. You needed to be pretty tough to count baggage and check cargo waybills under an airplane’s wing not only in the heat of summer but also at -50 degrees in Siberia.

How did your career develop?

When Latvia regained its independence in 1990, Latavio took the place of Aeroflot in Latvia, and I continued my job as a steward with the new company. Later, when airBaltic was created, I joined it. I flew as a senior cabin crew member until 2001, when I realised that I had already been at the same job for 15 years and felt it was time for a change. I began working as an instructor at airBaltic for a few years, but then I moved to the SAS Flight Academy (now CAE Inc.) and spent the next four years working there, also as an instructor. Eventually the SAS training centre was sold...to airBaltic, so now I laugh about how airBaltic bought me back, together with the whole training centre! Since then I’ve been the senior instructor and safety training standards manager here at airBaltic. We organise training courses both in Latvia and abroad. It’s very interesting to observe the cultural differences – Scandinavians and Latvians are very reserved and restrained, but when we were in Mongolia, almost all of the airline’s employees took part in our training course, and they did so with such interest, energy, and enthusiasm as we had never seen before!

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

I work both as an instructor and the safety training standards manager. Some days I teach and spend the whole day with students, in the classroom and in practical training sessions aboard aircraft. Some days I prepare training curricula. Autumn and winter are the most intense training periods; that’s when airBaltic has its annual training courses for crew members who are already actively working. In addition, the company has to train new crew members for the summer season, when the number of flights increases, new destinations are offered, and more employees are needed. Last year was special because we got the new Bombardier CS300 aircraft in our fleet, and crews needed to do a lot of work in a short amount of time in order to receive our license to begin flights. That was a challenge for us instructors, too.

Over the years, have there been any particularly memorable events or incidents?

I basically did the same thing every day; only the destinations, colleagues, and passengers changed and brought some variety to the days. Because airBaltic flights were mostly within Europe, we usually returned home that same day. But I’ve always enjoyed the chance to spend some time in a different country. I’ve spent longer periods of time as a steward and as an instructor in Portugal, Bhutan, Cambodia, Taiwan, Mongolia, Belgium, Greece, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

In a relatively short time, airBaltic has become a leader in the Baltic States, making almost 5000 flights per month and bringing approximately 400,000 passengers to their destinations. You’ve been with airBaltic since the very beginning. How do you view the company’s growth?

In the beginning, airBaltic didn’t even have its own airplanes; it used airplanes that belonged to Baltic International. Only later did it acquire its first two Saab airplanes from Sweden, which comprised its original fleet. It’s still hard to believe that the company has grown so much in such a short time! Earlier, we could only dream of having our own space for training. We rented spaces in various locations, and we hauled along all of our own equipment: oxygen tanks, fire extinguishers, life vests...as well as hot tea and coffee in thermoses to keep the students happy and alert. But now we have a new, modern training centre with a Boeing 737 simulator for pilots, a mock-up airplane for practical training for pilots and flight attendants, and the most complete set of airplane safety equipment in the Baltics. Last year we trained about 500 students from other airlines. We also trained 144 new flight attendants, renewed the qualifications of 261 active flight attendants, and trained 685 recurrent pilots and flight attendants for airBaltic’s own needs.

Currently, the average age of airBaltic flight attendants is less than 28. Do you think this statistic influences training and overall performance on board in any way?

We have intensive training courses that place a lot of emphasis on practical simulations and are led by very competent instructors. At the end, all of our students must pass strict theoretical and practical exams, in which they are evaluated not only individually but also how they work as part of a team. Age does not play a special role, because all of the students receive the same knowledge and training. The important thing is to maintain a certain proportion of new to experienced flight attendants on the crew, because that helps the new employees learn the practical aspects of the job and gain confidence in their skills. It also protects them from silly mistakes. In my experience, younger students learn the material much more quickly and adapt more quickly to the work environment, but more experienced people have better physical endurance and are more patient, which is very important when working on an airplane.

What do you try to teach the new flight attendants?

I have lots and lots of experience not only in aviation but also in the army; I’ve also accumulated quite of bit of life experience. If anything unexpected were to happen on an airplane, we would most likely not have time to open up a book and look for the solution. Nor is the right solution always to be found in a book. So, simulations of practical situations and learning various special skills play a large role in training. It’s possible that they’ll never encounter those situations in real life, but if they do, those skills will be there somewhere in their memories, ready to help them react quickly and precisely.

In your opinion, how has aviation changed over the years?

I remember when I first began working, an airplane ticket from Riga to Moscow cost around 20 roubles, which was almost the same price as a train ticket. It wasn’t only businessmen and holidaymakers flying, but also grannies travelling to visit relatives and bringing along jars of jam and canned goods. When Latavio emerged and we began flying abroad, only the very wealthy could afford airplane tickets. Today ticket prices have again fallen to more favourable levels, and a wider spectrum of people can afford to fly.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

About 15 years ago my son bought a mountain bike to take part in competitions. When I took him there, I was surprised to see a thousand other participants! My son placed one hundredth in the race, which made him very proud. We later made a bet that I would compete with him the following spring. I unexpectedly acquired a bicycle that was meant specifically for this kind of racing, and so I secretly took it out to the forest and began training on it – it felt as if I was learning to ride a bike for the first time again. I remember pedalling as fast as I could at the race in order to finally catch up to my son. I not only caught up to him, but I eventually even passed him! And so we trained and raced together for two years, but I always beat him, so he switched to another bicycling discipline, downhill racing. I also try to bike to work every day – it’s not only good exercise, but it’s also a good way to spend the time commuting. Especially if you have a sedentary and emotionally stressful job, when you climb on a bicycle at the end of the day, your head gets literally aired out and all of those thoughts are put in their proper places. BO