APEX in Profile: Hiroko Kawamoto

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Image: All Nippon Airways

Hiroko Kawamoto
Executive Vice-President, Member of the Board
Director for Promotion of ANA Group Diversity and Inclusion,
Promotion Officer for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games
All Nippon Airways

 Hiroko entered All Nippon Airways in 1979 as a cabin attendant and worked on one of ANA’s first international flights. She rose through the ranks, becoming senior vice-president of Inflight Services in 2009. Since April 2016, she has become an executive vice-president; Member of the Board of Directors; Member of Women Empowerment Promotion Committee; director for promotion of ANA Group Diversity; and promotion officer for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

FAST FACTS
Now Watching: Star Wars
Favorite Airport: SIN
Favorite Airport Restaurant: Soup Restaurant, SIN

Did you choose the airline industry or did it choose you?
When I joined the company, I joined as a cabin attendant, as I thought I was better suited for a job with opportunities to travel in Japan and around the world, rather than sit behind a desk. At the time, there were no international routes and we only flew domestic flights, but I remember I was moved when I saw the beauty of Japan’s natural scenery throughout the four seasons, including the blue sea of Okinawa in summer, the mountains with autumn leaves in Tohoku and the Southern Alps with snow.

What was it like to fly as a crewmember on one of ANA’s first international routes?
When ANA finally started flying international routes, I was extremely excited. Even today I remember how, when I was about to land at Los Angeles International Airport for the first time, I could see the palm trees and the sea from up above and everything looked very beautiful. I was ignoring the passengers and had my face pressed up against the window for a long time, leading one of the passengers to ask if it was my first visit. I was always excited when I visited an airport for the first time.

Why does ANA have a role for women empowerment and diversity?
In today’s diversifying market, it is indispensable for the growth of the company to reflect women’s sensibilities into services and company management. More than thinking in terms of women’s empowerment, it is more about harnessing women as a resource for the growth of the company. I hope that minorities including women, but also including, for example, a range of nationalities, people of various ages and members of the LGBT community, are all accepted and produce a good “chemical reaction” leading to innovation.

In today’s diversifying market, it is indispensable for the growth of the company to reflect women’s sensibilities into services and company management

What’s the biggest change about passenger expectations from when you first started working for ANA and now?
To be honest, I think many things have not changed in nature. In both past and present, passengers are excited when they board an aircraft, and I think they are delighted by the other-worldly experience of flying above the clouds. Various services have been automated and become more convenient. There is improved music and in-flight entertainment, and passengers are now able to use Wi-Fi, but if possible, I hope that passengers can enjoy looking outside the aircraft (although they don’t really have to stick their face right up against the window as I once did). On domestic flights within Japan, I recommend looking out of the window to enjoy various aspects of the country’s natural beauty. There are many passengers who use a PC during a flight, but I hope you enjoy what you can only experience on an aircraft.

There are many passengers who enjoy having a little conversation with cabin attendants, and it is important for cabin attendants to communicate with each individual. I want the job of cabin attendant to be a job where we can try our best to understand customers and enjoy meeting people. That’s not the only case for meeting passengers, it also applies to colleagues working together. I think it is great if we can enjoy dialogue and find, from within those conversations, services that we could put into practice. No matter how advanced aircraft become, I would be delighted if there is not just a focus on convenience, but also on creating a special experience – in other words, through quietly taking into account passengers’ needs that can emerge from conversations between people on board.

What do you think is the most overlooked aspect of the passenger experience? How would you change it?
An airline’s operations are never the same. They are influenced by the weather and sometimes passengers are inconvenienced for reasons including aircraft maintenance. That is the nature of the business and cannot be helped, but when something happens, it is important to try as much as possible to understand how passengers feel. Each individual member of staff does his or her best to understand passengers’ feelings as passengers pass from the reservation staff to the ground staff and then to the cabin attendants and I hope passengers feel at every stage of the travel that they make a right decision to fly on ANA.

For example, if a departure is delayed by heavy snow and passengers are stuck inside the aircraft, then we need to look and see if passengers are having difficulty. You have to be very careful that you don’t just think that you are standing in passengers’ shoes (when you are not, really). It’s particularly important to provide assistance to people such as those who need help, including elderly passengers, as well as passengers who are not used to traveling and having language trouble, or mothers who are worrying what will happen if their baby starts to cry.

It’s important to enjoy the process of turning difficulty into opportunity if we wish to increase the number of passengers who will want to repeat their flights on ANA.

We still need to make further efforts to ensure passengers feel that, once they get on board, they are able to complete the trip without any anxiety, and that they are eager to travel again because they know that it will be OK on ANA. Now more and more people are using the Internet and smartphones, which has made life more convenient, but in the end, it’s about people. It’s important to enjoy the process of turning difficulty into opportunity if we wish to increase the number of passengers who will want to repeat their flights on ANA.

How can the passenger experience be more accommodating to the growing number of female business travelers?
Generally speaking, women are more likely to share their experience with others (men may not be so talkative!). It’s important not simply to provide major moments of joy, but an accumulation of small, pleasant experiences. If we understand something new through conversations with a passenger, then we need to reflect that in our services. For example, if a passenger who enjoys wine tells us that the wine was delicious, then you could remove the label from the bottle, attach it to a card, and send it to that individual with a message, or if someone likes flowers, you could put some of the flowers from inside the cabin on that passenger’s table.

It’s important to come up with innovative ideas that are not in the manual for providing a special experience. It’s good if female passengers start to talk about these experiences. What is important is not to rely on information you have in advance, but rather from the dialogue with the passenger, to take note of what the passenger is interested in and reflect that in your service and conversation. If you do this, then the passenger will speak to various other people about it. This will not happen on all flights, so it is important to treasure every individual encounter.

What’s an anecdote about working at ANA that you like to tell others?
It would be difficult to do these days, but as there are only a limited number of Japanese meals and Western meals available, there was a passenger who wanted to have a Japanese meal but was unable to receive one, so I took some of the rice and made a rice ball. I could not make it into the proper triangular shape, but even so, the customer, who had been irritated that there were no more Japanese meals, was extremely pleased. I was delighted I was able to take what was available, take a little bit of initiative, and make something special (provide a special experience). A passenger was also once pleased when I got some caviar from the Western menu and put it on top of some rice and said, “Rice and caviar go well together,” presenting a “caviar rice bowl.” I don’t think that current flight attendants would go this far, but I’m sure they are coming up with various different ideas.

I also have a good memory of how, at one pre-flight briefing, we decided that we would search for passengers who were looking miserable and then announce at the debriefing how many of them we had managed to make smile before they got off the plane, and after the flight, we did all get together and do just that.

If you weren’t doing your current job, what would you love to be doing?
I love flowers and I love flower arrangement, so I would want to work surrounded by flowers in a place like a flower shop. I love displaying flowers at home.

What are your ritual travel habits?
I always pack a pair of sneakers and go for a walk. The best thing I love about traveling is to walk around, encountering the atmosphere of the place and meeting people. Even if you go to the same place, it will differ by season. I love traveling overseas, but I also encourage people to enjoy Japan’s natural beauty and seasons even more. Each destination also has cultural traditions that lie behind the local food and alcohol (such as sake, various local drinks and wine), and I love enjoying a drink in a local natural setting.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had on a flight?
Aside from ANA meals, I particularly remember eating sampappu (vegetables wrapped in meat) on Asiana Airlines, xiaolongbao on EVA Air and satay on Singapore Airlines. In-flight meals are extremely important, as they get people feeling that their journey is getting started.

When the Summer Olympics come to Tokyo in 2020, what will you be most excited for?
One of the sports supported by ANA is blind soccer. This is a sport that can be enjoyed by anyone, not just disabled people, so everyone can get involved. Just like the Olympics, the Paralympic Games will be a milestone for various activities that we are involved in, and I hope it will also be an opportunity for us to think about a universal service and form an intangible legacy.

This article was originally published in the 6.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.