Engaging a new generation of learners: JetBlue’s story of technician training in VR

Close up of the interior of the nose of an airplane.

A JetBlue technician is standing on the ground next to an airplane that’s preparing to push off from the gate. She only has a limited amount of time to do a walk-around safety inspection, one of the final steps before the plane is cleared to depart. Safety is one of the most important aspects of airline customer experience, so her job is integral to JetBlue’s promise to “bring the humanity back to air travel.”

JetBlue is a major American airline known for low fares and great customer experience. The carrier’s 22,000 employees help make 1,000 daily flights possible for travelers around the world. Technicians are an important piece of the puzzle as they perform a variety of functions that keep the aircraft safe and secure.

The airline is also very focused on employee experience, specifically how to engage the younger generation of technicians that go through training. Andy Kozak, who implemented Virtual Reality training at JetBlue in partnership with Strivr, has a lot to say about how it has engaged a younger generation of technicians while simultaneously keeping passengers safe and saving time and money for the airline’s College of Technician Operations.

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Turning trainees into participants in their own learning

“In our industry,” says Kozak, “conventional training is kind of just the way we do things — butts in seats, 40 hours a week, sometimes up to two or three weeks. But the younger generation wants to learn differently.”

For Kozak and a lot of today’s L&D leaders, training is not about forcing students to memorize facts and protocols. It’s about getting them to connect, so they’re excited to come to training sessions and get something out of them. The goal isn’t to get them to show up because they “have to.” It’s to teach them something real.

To create a new paradigm for learning at JetBlue, Kozak strove to bring more “touch” into the classroom. Getting technicians in front of airplanes was important to their training. But on-the-job training with real planes is expensive and time-consuming. He had an idea: “We thought, if we could use VR more in the classroom — and not have to go out to the airplanes — it would be a great mix for us.”

“You want them to leave learning something and go back into their work environment and see their performance levels increasing,” he explains. Kozak sought out technology that would simulate touching planes in the most realistic way possible, and that’s how the partnership with Strivr began. Now, instead of sitting in an instructor-led classroom for eight hours a day, they’re participating with their senses, bodies and minds in Virtual Reality (VR).

The approach is known as Immersive Learning, which combines the sense of presence of VR with advanced learning theory, data science and spatial design to create the most effective and engaging training.

That’s kind of been a game changer about Immersive Learning. I think this is going to be the norm in future training.

Andy Kozak, Manager College of Technical Operation, JetBlue
Boy looking out the window of an airplane.

Tackling use cases that could be profoundly improved by an immersive experience

The first Immersive Learning project that Kozak created at JetBlue was a simple walk-around of a narrow-body Airbus. In the headset, trainees are standing on the ground outside a JetBlue aircraft, under the lights and hearing airport sounds – just like real life. The training was broken into three different modules, which had the trainee explore the different areas of the aircraft, then get tested on identifying issues under a time-crunch. This allowed technicians to practice the walk-around in a safe environment that simulated what it would be like in real-world scenarios. Because the training was in VR — not on an expensive plane — they could repeat the exercise over and over, ultimately becoming more familiar with the airplane setup before being thrown into the job.

The second project was another type of aircraft, the Embraer 190, which has a complicated door on it. In the past, JetBlue had had occasional issues with inflight crew members getting out of sequence with the steps required to open and close the door. Unfortunately, a wrong move could result in a mandatory slide deployment — a mistake that cost the airline up to  $50,000 each time it happened. It was critical to JetBlue that employees understand exactly how to arm, close, disarm, and open the door correctly so that things would go smoothly “in the field.”

Bringing together stakeholders to integrated learning experiences

To make these two initial Immersive Learning ideas a reality meant engaging several business units on planning and production: the training team, their operational counterparts, maintenance and technical operations, and flight ops and inflight crew members. It was essential to get a well-rounded point of view, and the more people who weighed in, the greater the outcomes could be.

This cross-functional participation and buy-in is what ultimately makes Immersive Learning projects successful. The entire organization agrees on the business objectives, as well as the learning objectives that map to those goals.

Starting with two high-impact training use cases was a good foundation for future Immersive Learning efforts because it showed all the stakeholders how powerful VR training could be. His advice to other leaders considering Immersive Learning: “Solve a problem, whether it’s a hard problem, a medium problem or low-hanging fruit — so that you can show that it’s going to be effective. That’s where you gain a lot of support from your operational counterparts.”

Flight crews, too, had positive feedback about their experience using the VR training modules. Says Kozak, “I have a lot of young technicians who really embraced it. Their demographic is very computer-savvy, and they really enjoy having the training world in VR.”

One benefit of Immersive Learning the JetBlue team did not expect was that it would be a powerful recruiting tool. As Kozak explains, “The younger generation is excited to come to an airline that is progressive. But it’s also about keeping up with the times and helping students learn in the best possible way.”

Working with Strivr was absolutely awesome. We checked every box, and it was very exciting to work with a group that was so prepared.

Andy Kozak, Manager College of Technical Operation, JetBlue

Kozak’s initial hunch that Immersive Learning would be the right fit for JetBlue proved correct, and the experience has been a positive one: “From creating the script, to making sure all content is correct and consistent, to filming and delivering the product, we’ve never had a problem with hardware or software. Everything has gone seamlessly. And if I sound like I’m a huge Strivr supporter, obviously I am. Strivr is everything you want in a business partner. We really didn’t have any hiccups. It was so easy to do.”

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