After participating in an innovation contest sponsored by Lufthansa Cargo and Munich-based HYVE, I was invited to Frankfurt, Germany for a few days. The order of business: a session in an A380 Flight Simulator, and an innovation workshop to flush out and refine some forward-thinking concepts for customer service in the Air Cargo Industry. As an added bonus, I arrived a few days early to explore Frankfurt. By explore, I mean I just roamed around aimlessly, eating and drinking just about anything branded as a local specialty.
When I showed up at the gate of the Lufthansa Flight Training center – the same one used by pilots from around the globe to rack up practice flying time – I had no idea what to expect. I have loved air travel for as long as I can remember, but really never considered what it might be like to be at the helm of a plane. Six of us sat in a conference room for an informal briefing on the physics of flight. As a creative, I tend to have trouble grasping complex science concepts, so I was a little nervous. Our instructor, himself a Lufthansa pilot, broke things down in an hour, in a way that was easy to understand and really shed new light on just what’s happening at different stages of the flight. I’ve always recognized the noises being made by the landing gear going down, or the wing flaps going up, but to finally understand the how/when/why was unexpected and neat.
While I expected the flight simulator to be akin to an old video game, nothing could be further from the truth. Just minutes after the door closed behind us, an airport runway was visible through the windows of the plane, the entire cockpit was aglow with what seemed like a thousand buttons, switches and indicators, and it was too easy to forget that we were not actually on a plane. The cockpit rumbled and tilted as we taxied and took off, and the effect of gravity pressed me deep into my seat. Incredible!
We each took turns acting as both the First Officer, and then the Captain, with the ability to choose the airports from which we wanted to take-off or land. A few clicks of the dial and the runway of JFK in New York stretched out before us. One click later, the sunny day was replaced by a snowstorm. On to Tel Aviv. Then Hong Kong. Globetrotting at it’s finest! The level of detail was exceptional, and I was amazed to be staring down at tiny cars moving in traffic on an adjacent highway as we climbed toward cruising altitude. I chose to land at Schiphol, one of my favorite airports, and was thrilled to pull off not one, but two solid landings without incident (though I owe it all to a great First Officer and our instructor’s wise choice to run the simulation without any adverse weather or crisis situations).
As the clock raced toward 10pm (2200), we boarded a taxi for Lufthansa’s Training & Conference Center. Buried in a hillside forest about 30 minutes from Frankfurt in the town of Seeheim, it was stunning even under the cover of darkness. A beautiful, expansive lobby that rivals even the most luxurious of hotels harbored a check-in process that literally took only seconds. With no time to spare, we headed to our rooms to freshen up, and met again in the lobby bar – appropriately named Last Call.
Within minutes I was talking to an incredibly friendly woman staying at the center for an upcoming training session. The bar had the vibe of a summer camp from when I was younger, or the initial days of arriving on a college campus. Here were a bunch of people, all here for mostly the same reason, forming friendships that would likely stay with them forever, even as time and distance separated them over the course of their Lufthansa careers. A few great German beers, a lot of neat conversations, and an embarrassing showing at German Bowling (yes, it’s harder than it looks) brought the literal Last Call upon us unfortunately quickly. Off to bed for an early morning departure! Just five hours after crawling into the most comfortable bed in recent memory, the sun rose on a beautiful forest, an amazing breakfast, and a van ride to the Lufthansa Cargo headquarters adjacent to the airport in Frankfurt.
The Lufthansa Cargo center was surprisingly clean and had a modern industrial look – far from the gritty, dark warehouse complex I had imagined of a business that moves freight of all types from truck to plane to truck. We settled into a room in the Visitor’s Center with employees from different areas of innovation, products and services of Lufthansa Cargo. Over the course of the day, we each presented the ideas that had brought us to that room, then spent time developing the details on how they could be implemented, the challenges that might be faced, and laying out the case for why we thought they were great ideas. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the day was nearing an end. The Vice President of Product Management dropped in to hear a summary of the ideas we had discussed throughout the day, and lay out what the next steps might be in seeing them through to implementation. I was impressed not only at how seriously Lufthansa Cargo took the concept of innovation and the consideration of these ideas, but also had how improbable it was that I would be sitting at a table with someone of such high rank in such a well-known global corporation, and that she was exceptionally warm, engaged, and easy to talk to. I would love to give some insight into the ideas and the process, but I’ll leave those details to Lufthansa Cargo to release.
As the day drew to a close, a new challenge arose. In situations like this, I find that though it seems unlikely that I will see many of these people again, there is always still a very human desire to stay in contact. Never one for big goodbyes, I tried to limit my parting comments to a quick handshake. I hope that I genuinely conveyed how much I enjoyed the time and contributions of each person in the room that day. It’s rare to be in a room full of people for a workshop such as this and really feel a solid sense of collaboration and comfort with little conflict. I believe that’s a big part of what makes innovation successful – the chemistry of those who work on it together – and their ability to efficiently unite for a common goal without sacrificing humor, courtesy, or authentic curiosity about each other.