FlySafair,one of few that survived COVID

FlySafair seems to have been one of the few that survived our initial COVID impact…

By Niel Swart
As South Africa is slowly getting use to the new normal and these “unprecedented times”, we still often still hear “you are on mute” but through it all, some companies are doing well. Safair being one of them. We thought it is good to check in with Kirby Gordon after our initial Q&A session a while ago.

ZS-FGC on her first visit to Cape Town International

FlySafair seems to have been one of the few that survived our initial COVID impact, well done on that. How did you manage to do this under so many restrictions?

“Thanks. We’ve just continued to do what we always do – keep our costs as low as possible and try to offer the best service we could under the circumstances.”

FlySafair has not only survived, you have actually taken most of the market share. This is very good for business but is this good in the long run? What effect does the lack of competition have on an airline such as FlySafair?

“No it’s not great in the long-run as any healthy market needs competition. We look forward to the return of our competition to the market. More choice is good for consumer demand.”

A new airline is set to take flight end November 2020. Their fleet will have much larger aircraft and it is to be expected that they will start with domestic operations first. They are also saying they will be the cheapest in the market. Does this have an impact on your future plans as at first passengers may be drawn by the cheaper prices?

“Ours is a highly commoditised market and the supply and demand dynamics of the market are always going to be a factor to contend with. We’ve competed against airlines bigger than us, and some who enjoy state subsidies. We’re just going to do the best we can.”

Apart from taken most of the market share, you are also expanding. We noted there is a big employment drive for flight deck and cabin crew. Is this to cope with the demand that there is now but also keeping the future in mind?

“We are recruiting crew at the moment, not sure we would call it a big recruitment drive relative to previous efforts, but we do have some new aircraft arriving and need to crew them. Some of the recruitment under way is also to fill one or two positions of folks who have moved on to other things.”

With many domestic airlines having difficulties and staff being made redundant, is there an opportunity for those that want to, to move over to FlySafair?

“We are recruiting at the moment so there are a few positions available yes.”

Credit: Billy Botha FlySafair Technician – The latest addition to the fleet ZS-FGD still carrying her other registration N268WT

Not only are new employees on the cards, so are new additions to the fleet. We already have seen ZS-FGC being in operation and ZS-FGD is about to arrive this week. Are more aircraft expected? If so, how many?

“Yes, ZS-FGD arrived last Thursday (1 October 2020) and is awaiting licensing by the SACAA.”

Speaking of ZS-FGC, she has a special livery. Can you maybe tell us a bit more about it and the award you have won (congratulations!)?

“Thanks – yes, we painted her up to celebrate our award of Aircraft Operator of the Year at the Annual SACAA Excellence Awards evening. It was a great honour to be awarded this top spot and we obviously wanted people to know about it.”

On ZS-FGC and ZS-FGD we noted they have the Scimitar Winglets. Scimitar Winglets seem to be gaining popularity in South Africa. They are very costly but have up a fuel saving of up to 2.2%. Is this to bring down price tickets or perhaps to extend the range, maybe looking at international flights?

“Yes they do both have the winglets. We’re going to be monitoring the saving on them – these savings are always great on paper but the key is to identify what kind of difference they really make when you start to apply them to your specific network on your specific operating conditions. Theoretically the saving should be good on slightly longer hauls, but at this stage we’re going to fly a while and measure the differences to see whether it’s worth deeper investment.”

SAA (Mango branded) have been leasing B738’s from Safair. Have they been returned to Safair and are they now part of the fleet?

“There are a few B738s in our fleet that were once in the Mango fleet – I stand to be corrected but I think the first three 800s we brought in were all ex-Mango.”

How big is the fleet now and how many aircraft are leased vs owned?

“The FlySafair fleet is up to 17 now. We own the 8 400s.”

We noted the FlySafair fleet is only Boeing and the B737. Why the B737 and not the A320NEO?

“Key to the classic low cost operating model is to operate one type. We even stretch that rule a bit between the 400s and the 800s as it is, but the idea is to create efficiencies in terms of training, aircraft “swopability” and of course spares and maintenance. Safair had long been operating and maintaining Boeings before FlySafair was even a consideration, so the choice there was a pretty obvious one for us.”

Credit: Billy Botha FlySafair Technician – The latest addition to the fleet ZS-FGD

Will FlySafair always stick to Boeing or will other manufactures such as Airbus be incorporated later?

“No, the idea for the moment is to stay true that Low cost model in FlySafair and focus on one type.”

On the topic of the total fleet: previously we mentioned the Herc operations. How is that side of the business?

“Great. The Herc contracts operate very essential services on their contracts, so work fortunately continued through lockdown, which was a real help.”

We had a look at the age of the Hercs (to compare those to the ones owned by SAAF and we all looooooooooove a Herc) and noted the Hercs are aging. How many years will these iconic aircraft still be in service with Safair? If less than 5 years, what are the options being considered to replace the Hercs with?

“Your observation is accurate and very sad. Those aircraft have a remarkable legacy and it’s tragic to see them being slowly retired. We’re looking at a number of alternatives and engaging our clients in options that they might be interested in, but we’ve not committed to anything yet.”

Credit: FlySafair

Is the employment drive for flight and cabin crew to staff these new additions to the fleet?

“Yes and to a smaller degree to replace one or two staffers who have moved onto other careers.”

Are any aircraft due to leave the fleet, like the B734’s? If so, which ones and where are they heading to?

“Not in the immediate future.”

While on the topic of aircraft, as the fleet grows, so does the technical needs. As you are servicing aircraft yourself, do you foresee that even in this area more people will be needed?

“Possibly. We’ve certainly needed some more space and we’ve moved from occupying one hangar to three.”

Could it be that Cape Town also gets a technical facility or possibly even Safair hangars where full A, B or C checks and other heavy maintenance?

“Not at this stage.”

As FlySafair grows, how will you ensure that passengers and employees do not become just numbers and more business focussed compared to the more fun and personal airline we all love? Or differently put, how will you keep the small personal touch while being a large airline?

“That’s a big focus that we have and something that we work very hard on. It’s a particular challenge in the aviation space just by the sheer structure of airlines, specifically having your crew and your outstations geographically separated from the rest of your organisations. We make a big effort to ensure that everyone keeps close through a number of initiatives.”

We all hope we are over the worst when it comes to COVID-19 but what if a second wave is to hit us? What preparations are being made by FlySafair to withstand another possible lockdown?

“Yes, hopefully the worst is over, but we do need to be realistic about a possible resurgence. We’ll have to access the specific situational factors but we’re most likely to pursue a similar strategy to what we used the first time – seems to have worked for us so far.”

COVID19 has taught all industries various lessons. Which were the biggest lessons that Safair have had? Did any of these lesson have long lasting impact on how you will operate in future? As an example the check-in process at the check-in desks.

“One thing that our customers are really loving is the controlled disembarkation procedures where we work row-by-row, so we’ll definitely stick to that. The other thing that’s been key is refining our self-service offerings – so for example our existing Whatsapp boarding passes were a real asset but we’ve now had more opportunity to highlight those facilities and get more people to try them out.”

Will we maybe see a masked FlySafair special livery at some stage?

“Hahah, maybe, although it’s been done now – we like to be the first to do new things.”

Speaking of FlySafair maybe doing a masked livery, what community initiatives are Safair doing in these times of need?

“To be very honest, our focus has very much been internal now. We have a few external projects that we run, which have continued – things like our cadet program and work creation initiatives, but we’ve turned a lot of our focus on to looking after our own people who’s had to make sacrifices during this tough time. As they say, charity begins at home.”

On brand awareness: could we maybe see FlySafair/Safair participation at air shows next year? Past air shows have been dominated by Mango.

“It’s always something to consider but to be honest, the cost of involvement versus the marketing return is doesn’t add up. If we participated we’d do it more on the basis of engaging with staff, but they are expensive exercises.”

Could FlySafair in future sponsor an acrobatic flying team?

“Not likely – at the moment we are pretty dedicated to our springbok sponsorship and aren’t in the market for any new properties.”

Will the Birthday Sale return in 2021?

“Hopefully, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Since our Q&A session with Elmar, he has been elected Airlines Association of Southern Africa’s (AASA) as their new deputy chairperson with Wrenelle Stander, CEO of Comair, as the new chairperson at its 50th annual general meeting. Congratulations to both, who will serve for the next 12 months, and we wish them all the best!

Book your FlySafair flight here

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial