How to run the world’s most punctual airline


How to run the world’s most punctual airline

ANNELIESE BURGESS speaks to FlySafair CEO Elmar Conradie about the cheapest days to fly, the micro-management behind on-time performance and what aviation is doing to reduce its carbon footprint.


IT was a breeze getting an interview with one of South Africa's most successful CEOs. One WhatsApp, two emails, and I have an appointment in my diary with Elmar Conradie. Except I mess the first interview up when I attempt to do it from Italy and the cellphone signal crashes on the island where we are holidaying. I am basically a no-show, as I can't even let his people know what is going on. When I can finally apologise, he is amused and gracious: “Heck, an Italian island without connectivity? Sounds like a dream. I want to go there."

On our second attempt, some months later, the Teams meeting freezes after 20 minutes but Conradie calls me right back on my cellphone. The lack of airs and graces from a man who grew up on a farm in Odendaalsrus is probably part of what helped him to build FlySafair into the extraordinary success it has become. It makes complete sense when he tells me at one point in our wide-ranging interview that the FlySafair culture is one of “just get on with it". 

Thriving through Covid

How did you survive Covid when so many airlines bit the dust?

Good question. We had a strong balance sheet when the pandemic brought airlines to a halt worldwide. And we immediately took steps to protect our cash flow. Our employees have been outstanding. Many didn't receive salaries for those first few months and later only received partial salaries as we rebuilt. The fact that we, as a company, had this shared goal to fly again played a huge role. 

How does the industry compare to pre-Covid times?

The domestic market has recovered nicely. We are back to about 80% of the passengers. You will remember that when Comair exited the market, there was this supply shock with not enough seats available. The interesting thing is that we now have more seats in the market than when Comair was flying. But it will take a while before we return to pre-Covid levels.

Did Covid change people's travelling habits?

Yes. During Covid people waited until the day before they needed to travel to book a ticket because of concerns about whether there would be a curfew again, beaches being closed, or airlines not refunding the money. It was an uncertain time.

Then, when Comair exited the market, people started booking far in advance again because they realised they couldn't leave it to the last minute because they might not get a seat.

I don't think business travellers have gone back to the way it was. It's more a gut feel than empirical, but we can see it in the lower periods. The demand is there during holidays, but not the rest of the time. People are still doing online meetings. 

Competition and growth

SAA is now also back in the market. Will this affect you?

There were more brands in the market before Covid, but in terms of airlines we are back to five. So essentially, we have the same number of competitors in the market as before, and we competed very successfully against them then.

And you are growing ...

In the last year, we've had incredible growth. In the domestic market, we've added 12 aeroplanes in 12 months. That kind of growth puts a business under a lot of pressure. So before we add more growth, we want to take it easy for a bit to allow our systems, processes and people to catch up. We feel the service levels we are incredibly proud of have suffered a bit with this growth spurt, and we want to correct that.

But we are planning some additional routes to neighbouring countries. Later this year we will fly to Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and maybe even Mozambique. And then, of course, we fly to Mauritius and Zanzibar too.

FlySafair’s unique selling point

I am always struck by the relaxed atmosphere on a FlySafair plane. Is this deliberate? 

The FlySafair culture is one of “just get on with it", and we have always been hyper-focused on operational aspects. Things need to work. We want people to know that everything will go smoothly when they board a FlySafair flight, and we like that our cabin crew is young. It creates a pleasant atmosphere because they are friendly and cheerful.

You have made being “on time” a unique selling point for FlySafair. Tell me more about how this came about.

When we started FlySafair, we thought about how we could differentiate ourselves. And being punctual was something that no one was getting right. A seat on an aeroplane is a commodity. There's not anything particularly nice about it. You can try to enhance the experience with better food or more comfortable seating, but ultimately it's just a seat between here and Cape Town or between Durban and George. So, we decided to focus on what we refer to as OTP (on-time performance). When someone buys a ticket from us, they know we will get them to their destination on time. And OTP also reduces costs and helps us to keep ticket prices lower.

And you have received quite a few awards for that?

Yes, OAG is an international company that measures airports and airlines worldwide. We have won the award twice for being the most punctual airline in the world, and once we achieved second place.

Explain how you manage this if others fail so miserably.

There are many variables in being on time; it takes constant effort and constant focus. 

The worst kinds of delay are caused by an aircraft being unserviceable or having technical problems. And the weather, of course, can wreak havoc on your OTP. We had an issue two days ago with fog in East London that had a knock-on effect all day on other flights. Each aircraft does about six flights a day, so if you've got a delay on the first you've probably got five more delays that day because the flight out of East London goes to Johannesburg and Cape Town. So a delay in the morning out of one place can affect an evening flight out of another. 

And then you have all the elements of a turnaround at an airport. We plan these “turns" literally to the minute. From the doors opening, to the guys who do the steps, to how fast we clean the plane and process people through boarding. Then there's catering and loading of the bags and cargo. And the crew is essential. They have to be on time and they have to do all procedures on time. Other variables are out of your hands, like navigation services. If your slot is not confirmed on time and you can't leave when you're supposed to, that causes another delay.

Cheap fares and going greener

Please give us some tips on how to snag the cheapest fares.

Tuesdays and Saturdays are the cheapest days to fly. Fridays and Sundays are usually the most expensive days.

In the local market, demand is crazy during school holidays, summer holidays and long weekends. Then again, there is almost no demand in the winter months, the last two weeks of January and the beginning of February. So there will be cheaper fares.

In simple terms, we start by selling the cheaper tickets. And as you get closer to the flight times and the aeroplane fills up, the prices will increase. 

Every time I fly, I am horrified by the amount of plastic generated on board. Why is the airline industry not more environmentally aware?

The airline catering business in South Africa has been tough, and quite a few companies have closed down. We had a few projects in the pipeline to replace plastic cutlery and other packaging but to be brutally honest, since Covid that's not been a focus. We are now back in the process of doing a complete revamp of all our catering, and one of the things we will look at again is the packaging. Hopefully, we will have a completely revamped catering offering towards the last quarter of this year.

What is the industry doing to assuage consumers' concerns about its carbon footprint?

Very few industries take this issue as seriously as we do, but there is also the misconception that aviation is a big polluter. Aviation contributes about 2.5% of the world's carbon emissions. It is not the biggest polluter, but it is a very visible one. And it's easy for people to say, well, fly less. It's less easy to say let's save the planet by generating less electricity. But the aviation industry is taking it very seriously, and a lot is happening to reduce our carbon footprint.

Like what?

The most immediate thing we are all looking at is reducing fuel burn, because that cuts carbon emissions. Then there are all kinds of SAFs, or sustainable aviation fuels, that we are looking at as an industry. The problem is that all these things need to be researched and tested heavily before they can be implemented, because safety is a big consideration. There's hydrogen fuel, for instance, and smaller electric aeroplanes. A lot is happening, but it's still in the development and innovation phase.  

OK, last one. What do you like the most about your job?

I like the challenge. I like the fact that it's not an easy industry. There's the maintenance side, the catering, the cargo, operations with the pilots, and the commercial side. It is constantly changing. I like to make things better, and that is an ongoing challenge which I enjoy tremendously. 

♦ VWB ♦

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