Steffany Kisling never expected to get into the rarified world of private aviation. “I grew up with meager means. Even a commercial flight was a luxury,” she points out.
Today Kisling, a former cabin attendant on flights and yachts, is the founder of a business that specializes in extravagance: San Francisco-based SkyAngels, which trains über-cabin attendants to see to every need of the famous or wealthy who fly high on private planes.
Kisling launched the company in 2010, when recruitment for her first training class (now called SkyAcademy) netted applications from some 500 women. (To date, no men have signed on for training.) The interest came mostly through networking in the close-knit flight-operator community and through postings on LinkedIn and Craigslist. Of the initial applicants, Kisling interviewed 10 and eventually permitted three to go through the training process, setting the tone for a startup that was highly selective from the get-go.
SkyAngels are more than flight attendants. In addition to standard safety and security procedures, the tasks they perform -- asked but sometimes intuited -- run the gamut from nice touch to over-the-top. Many of the extras are food-related; preflight pickups have been made at The Ivy in Los Angeles, Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach and Cipriani in New York, as well as runs to grab birthday cakes or to Brooklyn for pizza. The team goes above and beyond for kids: On one flight the plane’s interior was transformed to a Disney theme, down to the foods and tiaras. SkyAngels also take kids on outings at the destination -- from horse-and-carriage rides to snorkeling -- while parents work. Need a fourth hand to play bridge in the air? A SkyAngel can do that.
Additionally, the company provides services such as efficiency consulting and an online training platform for flight operators.
Kisling launched SkyAngels with $25,000. The first three years in business “were really booming,” she says, adding that the venture has been profitable since its first year. (She would not reveal revenue figures.)
The quick growth required a pivot along the way. In the beginning, those who went through SkyAngels training became contract workers for the company, which worked as a staffing agency as well as a training firm. SkyAngels launched when the economy was slow, and flight operators contracted the company’s flight attendants to perform both mandates certified by Federal Aviation Regulations and high-end hospitality duties like serving as chef, personal assistant and caregiver, often in multiple languages. However, when the economy improved, flight operators began hiring their own crews. With that shift, demand for the staffing side of the business fell, but demand for the training didn’t.
In 2014, Kisling brought in investors, including Mark Stevens of S:Cubed Capital (former partner of Sequoia Capital) and Dan Rosensweig, CEO of Chegg (and former COO of Yahoo). With their backing she developed a plan to expand SkyAcademy, which now has an online component as well as a physical location near Oakland International Airport. The program, which includes online training plus three-day intensive in-person schooling, costs $3,000. Also in the works is software designed to increase the efficiency of flight operators.
Kisling declines to disclose her financial goals except to say that she expects ROI to improve as the online training programs and software roll out. The new training will allow SkyAngels to significantly increase volume. Enrollment will be open -- meaning no more screening applications, and anyone can attend.
As her business has changed, one thing has stayed constant for Kisling. “I love it,” she says, noting that she enjoys the fact that nothing is the same from one day to the next: An aircraft may show up late, creating a domino effect of menu replanning and ingredient sourcing (say, if breakfast suddenly turns into dinner) in just two hours. “It keeps me abreast of what our students are going through, and I get more stories to tell.”
How To Succeed In The Luxury Business By Really Trying
While some might think that marketing to the deep-pocketed customers in the world of private aviation would be a breeze, SkyAngels CEO Steffany Kisling knows otherwise. She says there are special considerations when dealing with the extremely affluent, who expect top-notch service at all times. The key, she’s found, is to focus on providing exceptional service to fewer customers.
“You cannot make any mistakes,” Kisling says. “You have to pay attention to detail. You have one opportunity, and if you don’t get it right, chances are you are not going to get called again.”
Gary Davis, who was a pilot with United Airlines for 38 years before going into private aviation, says celebrity and high-end clients can be very particular.
“Sometimes I’m glad flight attendants deal with those passengers, and I can hide in the cockpit,” Davis says. “The ones who come out of SkyAngels are pretty adept to handle it, even early in their careers.”
Kisling says the rise in companies that “attempt to tackle the complicated market of private aviation—selling ‘empty legs’ at a discounted price with the goal in mind of making private jet travel available for the masses,” is an example of watered-down luxury that dilutes the sector. Those in the luxury market need to keep in mind that it’s “not for everyone,” she explains. “Our focus has always been and will continue to be on making private jet travel more delightful for those who can afford it.”