ch-aviation interview: Bert van der Stege, VP First Air

Founded in 1946 as Bradley Air Services, First Air offers scheduled passenger and cargo flights as well as charter operations in one of the harshest regions on Earth: the Canadian High Arctic. Under extreme climatic conditions, the carrier serves a large number of communities in Nunavut, Nunavik and the Northwest Territories from Southern Canadian cities, using a diverse passenger and cargo fleet which includes ATR42s and ATR72s, B737 Classics, Hercules C130s and a sole B767 freighter.

ch-aviation’s Niels Trubbach recently caught up with Bert van der Stege, First Air’s Vice President Commercial, to discuss the airline‘s operations, its challenges, and the aviation market in the Arctic as a whole.

Bert van der Stege spent most of his career at Lufthansa and worked in similar roles for Arik Air and RwandAir in Africa, before arriving at First Air in November 2013.

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First Air currently serves small settlements in Nunavut, Nunavik and the Northwest Territories. How would you say air transport has evolved in this area over the past few decades?

We started off in 1946 as a flight school and expanded north in 1954 with air charter and aerial survey work in support of the DEW line construction sites. This transitioned into operating passenger and cargo scheduled flights into the area we currently serve. Prior to the start of flight services, a lot of the arctic communities could only be reached by ship for two months or so a year, as the ocean is frozen solid for a majority of the year.

As time went by, our fleet grew from small planes (Stearman and Super Cubs) to larger ones like the Hawker Siddley 748 and our first jet aircraft, the Boeing 727, which was introduced in the mid 80’s.

A very important addition to our fleet has been the ATR42 and more recently, the larger ATR72. We actually became the largest ATR operator in Canada and have an excellent Maintenance & Engineering unit for both the 737s and ATRs. The introduction of other aircraft into our fleet such as the Hercules, B737-400s and the B767 have of course also been important milestones in our development.

What still remains a big challenge for us is airport infrastructure. Most hamlet airports have only very basic airstrips with unpaved runways. While conditions have improved over the years, a majority of the strips are still gravel, making operations somewhat challenging.

Copyright: Tis Meyer / www.planepics.org

What about government subsidies?

Airlines in Canada have to be self-sufficient. A few years ago, airlines were given subsidies to transport food from the South to the North, but this programme was superceded by another initiative some years ago which now subsidizes retailers instead.

There are no direct subsidies from the Government to Northern airlines, despite the fact we provide a vital infrastructure service to Northerners. This is very different from essential air services in the US or PSO routes in Europe.

Who operates the largest number of airports in the North?

They are all operated by the government. In general, air transport in Canada has to be self-sufficient, and this also applies to many airports, where operators have to pay for large part of the associated costs. If you are a sole operator with a small passenger base, this can become quite a lot to handle.

Copyright: Tis Meyer / www.planepics.org

What are the main reasons for travel?

There are actually three main reasons for travel up in the North. They include work-related travel, medical travel as the smaller hamlets offer limited health services, and finally tourism or family visits.

Work-related travel makes up about 45% of our passenger base while medical travel accounts for another 30%. The remaining 25% travel mostly for private reasons.

On average, residents of smaller communities only travel a few times a year but this can vary greatly – some never travel while others fly frequently.

There are several different groups of work-related passengers. Some are policemen, teachers, nurses, doctors, with others coming from the south of Canada to work in the north. Another group are Northerners who work in the South returning to their northern homes.

In the Northwest Territories, workers from the mines account for a significant proportion of our passengers. We also offer charter flights to the mines for their companies. Aside from the mining industry, the oil sector is also an important market.

Medical travel is actually paid for by the government thanks to state-backed health insurance. Public health staff in the smaller communities decide whether a patient needs to go to hospital or needs to see a specialist. In the event they have to go to hospital, staff arrange the flight for the passenger, depending on how urgent it is. Which of the airlines the patient eventually flies with is decided by hospital staff and depends on schedule, price and availability. If the case is urgent, the passenger is usually put on the next flight out making it very important to offer frequent, reliable service.

There are currently three carriers – First Air, Calm Air and Canadian North – serving Nunavut with scheduled passenger flights all of whose networks overlap. The case is the same in the Northwest Territories. What led to the co-existence of so many carriers?

While there are many airlines operating in northern Canada, a lot of them do not offer scheduled flights. I think there is need for some consolidation in the North. Markets are thin and costs are steep. On some flights we face stiff competition from Canadian North, while on some others, we go head-to-head with Calm Air.There are only two routes where we are the sole carrier operating.

Copyright: Tis Meyer / www.planepics.org

This past year, there were talks between First Air and Canadian North concerning a possible merger. What were the driving factors behind the move and why did the talks end?

Well as I just mentioned, I believe there is need for some consolidation in Canada’s northern aviation industry

One of our main objectives of the merger was to improve the efficiency of our operations – running an airline in Northern Canada is very expensive. A merger would also have benefitted our passengers and cargo customers substantially, as the combining of flights would have led to improved network coverage. Better connections, new services and more choice for passengers. However, shareholders own the two airlines. They have to agree.

How would you describe the relationship between carriers serving Nunavut and the market situation in general?

Due to heavy competition on flights to nearly every destination, fares are kept relatively low. We haven’t been profitable for a number of years now and have been working hard on reducing costs last year as well as improving our revenue. We expect to be back in the black in 2015.

We have no relationship with other Northern carriers outside of the fact that we help each other in the event of flight cancellations and/or delays with re-protection agreements.

In all, we attract passengers by offering the best network, most frequencies and excellent customer service. Ultimately, the airline that delivers the best connections, the superior product and an attractive price gets the passengers or cargo.

We differentiate ourselves through our generous on-board service. We offer the greatest seat pitch in North America and offer two different choices of hot meals on our jet flights with complimentary beer and wine included. Our flight attendants offer friendly personalized attention that you would otherwise experience in First Class only.

What criteria does First Air use to design its route schedule?

We have three local hubs – Yellowknife, Rankin Inlet, and Iqaluit. Our schedule is focused on connecting the North to South market which is most important as demand for flights within communities is much lower.

As soon as our B737s arrive at our hubs from Southern Canada’s major cities, the rest of our fleet, including our ATRs, spring into action offering connecting flights to the communities. After the B737s have returned, they again offer outbound jet connections to the South.

As a result of the hub concept that we employ, our aircraft utilization is low, ranging from around six to seven hours per day for 737s and a couple of more hours for the ATRs. Our schedule varies from day to day, so on some days certain routes see double daily frequencies.

Generally speaking, we serve all destinations at least four times a week. Many have daily service. On a number of flights, we use combi aircraft which allow us to carry both cargo and passengers while offering frequent departures to both the passenger and cargo markets. On certain routes we also use dedicated freighter or passenger aircraft. Cargo transport is very directional – from the South to the North with very little cargo going in the opposite direction.

Currently our split between passengers and cargo is roughly 65/35 in terms of revenue. As we also use some flexible combi aircraft, we can adapt our configuration for certain routes. When just a few passengers are booked on a flight, we can extend the cargo compartment and carry more cargo.

Copyright: First Air

Concerning First Air’s operations, what are the main challenges it faces in terms of maintaining reliable flight operations?

The three main challenges are high costs, harsh weather and under-developed infrastructure. The majority of the airports we use operate under VFR conditions with very limited instrument navigation and landing aids. Combined with the region’s harsh weather conditions and many gravel runways this sometimes makes it challenging to operate.

Reliability pretty much depends on weather and the time of year. If it is a very cold winter day with temperatures reaching minus thirty to forty degrees, we actually do quite well. During those periods, though it is very cold, the sky is usually blue and conditions are fine. But for approximately two or three months of the year, temperatures increase to around zero degrees. As a consequence, any fog, snowfall or snowstorms can make operations very difficult. As with nearly everywhere else, it is these temperatures that are the biggest challenge.
During our ‘better’ months, weather wise, we cancel a very low number of flights – maybe 3 or 4 per week on average – due to weather. Very often in those cases, it is only a particular airport that is closed. However, during more difficult months, the number of weather-related flight cancellations can go up to around 15-20 a week. If our hubs are affected, it’s worse of course. Currently we have around 240 flights per week so as you can see, we are well adapted to dealing with harsh weather conditions.

First Air currently operates some Boeing 737-200s which average 35 years of age. What makes it the best-suited aircraft for your operations and do you have any replacement plans?

Not really as there is no logical immediate replacement. The Boeing 737-200 is one of only a few jets that are able to operate on gravel runways. Unfortunately we won’t be able to extend the lifespan of these aircraft for more than a couple of additional years. They are in great shape, but will become uneconomical to fly. I expect that we will have to retire the aircraft in 2017-2018, as the maintenance costs are becoming too high.

There is no Boeing replacement. Since we use our ATR42s on most flights to smaller communities, we may have to consider looking for a turboprop replacement. Some of these flights could go to the ATR 72, We also look at a jet solution. There are currently a few potential aircraft that could be certified for gravel operations in Canada, including the Avro RJ85 and the larger RJ100. Our partner airline Summit Air already operates such an Avro RJ85.

Copyright: First Air

First Air recently replaced the Boeing 727 with the Boeing 767, and Hawker-Siddley HS 748 with the ATR. What are the advantages of the new aircraft and have they brought any new difficulties with them?

Not really. This replacement took place a couple of years ago, but we are very happy with these aircraft even though they aren’t really ’new’. Their operational costs are much lower, especially from a fuel consumption aspect. Overall, there have not been any problems with them regarding reliability.

 

First Air recently outsourced its Boeing 767 operations to Cargojet Airlines. What were the reasons behind the move?

We started a relationship with Cargojet in summer 2013 and this culminated in them operating the B767 on our behalf. We only had one B767 in our fleet and the industry saying goes: “one equals none” really. Cargojet is very good at operating B767s. This move allowed us to better focus on what we are specialized in, namely B737s and ATRs

Has First Air ever considered sourcing aircraft from Russia or Ukraine?

No. So far we are very happy with the airplanes we currently operate. The ATR is a great aircraft for the job in the remote and cold Northern parts of Canada. We are also actively looking at the Q400, in particular the new combi that Bombardier introduced.

Copyright: First Air

First Air also operates Lockheed Hercules. On which routes do you deploy them?

They are used on charter and scheduled cargo operations Both Hercules aircraft are based in Yellowknife and though they fly for mining companies in particular, they are also available for any customer that requires specialized bulk cargo capacity. A major advantage of the Hercules is that it can operate on gravel runways, a very important aspect of our business.

There is a lot of mining and oil business in the Northwest Territories and Alberta. Some mines are doing quite well and considering expanding, which would obviously be very good for us. Nunavut only has a single mine, which means there is little demand for those types of cargo planes in the Eastern arctic. The oil business, however, is currently one of our concerns. Due to falling oil prices, and a reduced need to shuttle staff to the sites, we lose business opportunities with oil companies.

The Hercules not only operates within Canada, but also flies foreign flights from time to time. For instance First Air’s Hercs recently completed contract flying from the USA to Bermuda and the Dominican Republic.

Your competitors use Dash-8s and Dornier Regional Jets. Have there been any aircraft types in the past that were not particularly suited to conditions in the Nunavut area?

I am not aware of an aircraft type that operated unsuccessfully in the past and had to be withdrawn from service because of that.The two aircraft you just named also seem to be doing a good job in the Arctic, as they are all able to operate under extreme weather conditions. Another important aspect is baggage capacity. Many of our travelers carry at least two or three pieces of checked baggage. We offer two pieces for free. Ensuring we can take all passengers, cargo and baggage is key to the selection and operation of an aircraft type.

Copyright: First Air

What are First Air’s main goals and what do you think its main challenges will be in the coming years?

Our main goal for 2015 is to become a profitable and sustainable company. First Air used to be a very profitable up until about 2009/2010 when revenue declined and costs went up. We have been loss-making ever since and are in the middle of a turnaround.

In 2014, we made very good progress in terms of reducing our costs and increasing our revenue, but there still is work to do.

In January 2014, we embarked on a major restructuring programme designed to make us more efficient by doing things differently and critically investigating where we could reduce our costs without compromising safety, quality and our well-known service standards. The cost-savings achieved in recent months have eminated from all over the company, while the measures implemented have already begun to make an impact as our numbers have actually improved since. I think that we will be able to post a profit again in 2015.

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ch-aviation interview: Trevor Sadler, CEO interCaribbean Airways

Air Turks & Caicos has undergone a lot of changes during the recent months under Trevor Sadler, who was appointed as CEO in September 2013.  Aside of relaunching as interCaribbean Airways the regional carrier for instance began to transform from point-to-point into a hub airline. Thomas Jaeger had the opportunity to talk with Trevor Sadler at APG WorldConnect in Monaco about the new strategy and the future for the Providenciales-based airline.

interCaribbean Airways - Airline Information

interCaribbean Airways - Aircraft and Fleet List

interCaribbean Airways - Recent News

interCaribbean Airways - Airline Route Network

You recently rebranded yourselves from Air Turks & Caicos to interCaribbean Airways. What was the mitigating factor behind the move?

Well, with our old name, business appeal was ‘limited’ to the Turks & Caicos Islands. Our new name – interCaribbean – isn’t limited to one country and will therefore allow us to appeal to everyone from across the Caribbean.

With our new brand name, we‘re able to sell more easily flights between other points within the Caribbean islands – domestic Jamaican flights for instance.

How would you describe an average costumer on your flights?

On our traditional point-to-point routes from Providenciales to Haiti, 90% of passengers are Haitian labourers on their way home and/or relatives visiting them in the Turks & Caicos Islands. The rest are either from NGOs or tourists. Labourer traffic is also essential for other routes as it makes up a good percentage of the travellers as well on flights to Dominica and Jamaica.

In contrast, shoppers and US Visa applicants make up a percentage of our flights to the Bahamas. As the United States does not have a diplomatic presence in the Turks & Caicos Islands, residents therefore have to travel to the Bahamas to apply for their visas.

In order to improve the overall efficiency of our Providenciales hub, we recently revised our timetables by offering better connecting flights which leave at more attractive hours. The move has paid off as even on some routes where we’re able to offer a convenient connection in only one direction, the flight, we have found, still sells well.

Our little hub also allows us to offer a wide range of connections to the neighbouring region. In some instances, we’ve been able to connect islands where no routes had previously existed. As much as I know, 25% of a flight involve transit passengers, a vast majority of whom travel primarily for US visa reasons.

It is also worth mentioning that a market segment that is currently growing quite rapidly is the European transit tourist niche i.e. tourists arriving from Europe use us to visit the islands of the Caribbean.

In all, our new brand image has helped us to improve our regional market share as it appeals to a greater audience.

When and how do your passengers book their flight tickets?

The majority of our passengers tend to book a couple of days ahead of departure. In most cases, 30 days in advance would be an enormous fete of forward planning for many!
It can be quite nerve-wracking to see how few bookings there are a couple of weeks before a flight leaves only for it to suddenly fill up in the last 7 days or so.

On domestic flights, a lot of customers simply show up at the airport and expect there to be a flight and a free seat available. If we have a free seat then that’s fine but if not, and the plane is already fully-booked, the traveller is upset. Therefore we try to get our customers to book well in advance by giving them incentives to do so.

Who are your competitors?

On our international routes, there is only one where we face direct competition – Providenciales to the Bahamas. On the others, we are a sole operator. You’d assume that having a monopoly would mean charging excessive “monopolist” fares. But actually our fares have decreased over the last few years, resulting in higher load factors.

On our recently launched connecting flights, we of course face some competition. Our biggest competitor is Copa Airlines whose excellent flight connections are very attractive despite Panama City being so far away.

On domestic flights within the Turks & Caicos Islands, we have a good market share where our competition is Caicos Express. Even though they recently acquired a Beech 1900C which offers 6 more seats than the aircraft we use on the routes, we limit expansion for capacity demand on domestic inter-island flights. So we choose to compete by offering a good product that meets the customers’ needs.

On flights to South Caicos, there is also a ferry service but due to its slowness and sparse weekly rotations, it doesn’t pose much of a threat. While at present there aren’t that many tourists travelling to South Caicos, that should change quite soon due to new hotels being built there. As a consequence, domestic passenger numbers will rise in the future. The Turks & Caicos Islands are a popular tourist destination and international passengers can fly in directly via Providenciales.

Do you have any plans to co-operate with major international carriers by offering them a Caribbean feeder service?

We’re currently in talks with three major carriers concerning possible interline agreements. As they involve a lot of work, we are in the implementation stage to go live in early 2015.

Have you ever had or still have any plans to offer direct flights to the United States?

We’re currently considering flights to the United States using smaller aircraft. I think there would be enough demand on some routes to destinations that are not yet served, especially if we can feed the flight with our inter-Caribbean network.

In addition to requiring aircraft larger than our Embraer 120 (we’re looking at 50- to 100-seater regional jets right now) we will also need to enhance our schedule to offer a greater number of convenient connections.

On flights within the Turks & Caicos Islands you operate a Beech 99, an aircraft that has rarely been used for scheduled services. What makes it the perfect fit for you?

We introduced the Beech 99 because it offered a capacity ideally suited to our domestic needs. But as passenger numbers have increased, and will continue to do so in the future, we are studying larger aircraft with around 19 seats – the Beechcraft 1900D in particular. I therefore expect the Beech 99 to be retired at some point in the near future.

With its stand-up cabin and good performance we also have the option of dispatching the Beechcraft 1900D on international routes where it would replace the Embraer 120 on flights with low demand.

Your fleet consists of several Embraer 120s (Brasilia’s), many of which are currently in storage. Why is this so?

We have a fleet of Embraer 120s of which four are currently in active service. At present, two other Brasilia’s are undergoing a C check, following which they will get a new paint job and interior before being returned to service this month (December).

The other six aircraft can be used as and when demand dictates and will feature in our future fleet growth plans. Next year for example, we plan to base aircraft out of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

What does the future hold for interCaribbean Airways?

In the long run, I think we will evolve into a completely different airline in terms of our positioning within the Caribbean. We will operate a major network covering many destinations. We’ve already started down this path and will continue along it…

Thank you for the interview!

interCaribbean Airways - Airline Information

interCaribbean Airways - Aircraft and Fleet List

interCaribbean Airways - Recent News

interCaribbean Airways - Airline Route Network

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ch-aviation interview: Dirk Eggert, GM Rhein-Neckar Air

Having commenced operations in March of this year, Rhein-Neckar Air is Germany’s newest scheduled airline. Founded by several companies from the Rhine-Neckar Region, the airline has wet-leased a Dornier 328 to ply its only route – Mannheim to Berlin Tegel – previously operated by the now defunct regional carrier, Cirrus Airlines.

Niels Trubbach had the chance to chat with Dirk Eggert, general manager at Rhein-Neckar Air and also executive manager at City-Airport Mannheim, about the startup which thus far, has been able to sustain operations on a relatively meagre budget.

Rhein-Neckar Air – Airline Information

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What were the reasons for setting up Rhein-Neckar Air and how was the airline developed?

After Cirrus Airlines collapsed, we, as Mannheim Airport, had no success in finding a new operator for our Berlin route for two years. All of this was due to the operational restrictions in force at Mannheim which, owing to its relatively short runway (1‘066m), made it very difficult to find a new operator.

You see, the Dornier 328 is actually the only aircraft that is suitable to operate at Mannheim Airport, both in terms of performance and from a passenger’s point of view. While the Dash-8-100 and -200 could be used, there are just two regional carriers left in Europe, namely SATA and Wideroe, that operate them. The ATR 42-600 could also be used albeit with significant restrictions. Alas, the Dornier 328 is the type best suited to our needs.

Anyway, as I just mentioned, there are only a handful of Dornier 328 operators left in Europe and none of them were willing to come. We had held talks with some interested parties but all would only commit to the route on condition it was either subsidized or a Public Service Obligation (PSO).

This struck us as odd as all scheduled flights from Mannheim to Hamburg and Berlin had , been profitable.

So we began to consider our options.

During the Cirrus years, we, as an airport, oversaw customer care for the airline‘s passengers. We therefore knew the customers that flew the route. All in all, about 35 to 40 companies made up 70 percent of the revenue.

It then dawned on us that we as an airport should consider setting up our own airline should we be able to win back Cirrus‘ old clientele. So, we asked them [the old customer base] if they would use the route again and got positive feedback.

Following a meeting with some major local firms, it was decided to found an association which would later become the sole owner of Rhein-Neckar Air. The firms, which themselves have an interest in the flights, are stake holders in the association.

However, the setup doesn’t mean we don’t offer competitive fares as after all, a customer will only fly with you as long as it makes financial sense to them.

Rhein-Neckar Air Dornier 328 – © Rhein-Neckar Air

Do your current operations have any similarities to those of Cirrus? If not, where do they differ?

The only similarity Rhein-Neckar Air has with Cirrus is that we use a Dornier 328 on our Mannheim to Berlin route.

By the time Cirrus had suspended operations, their reliability and service had become a disaster, in my own personal opinion. So you could say we learned a lot from Cirrus – above all how not to operate.

Do you have any long-term plans to apply for your own Air Operators Certificate (AOC) which would then lead to you terminating your wet-lease contract with MHS Aviation?

There‘s no reason for us to do so at the moment. MHS Aviation is a very reliable partner and offers excellent conditions. MHS Aviation also has enough planes to cover an AOG (Aircraft On Ground ) or provide replacements during repairs and routine checks. Often times, you’ll see a second Dornier 328 here in Mannheim. This second Dornier 328 is used by Sun-Air of Denmark as well as on charter flights.

Boarding at Berlin Tegel (TXL) – © Niels Trubbach / ch-aviation.com

The route from Mannheim to Berlin was abandoned for more than two years. Was it difficult to get the old clientele back?

We announced our flights just five weeks ahead of the launch date which, in practical terms, is leaving it a bit too late. However, our core group of 35-40 customers knew roughly when the first flight would launch and could therefore prepare themselves accordingly.
Therefor our business plan had estimated around 15 passengers per flight in March but in actuality, we exceeded expectations averaging 19 passengers per flight.

Is it more difficult to attract passengers in Berlin than in Mannheim?

Distribution is definitely more complicated in Berlin. While we are working with a sales agent that is active in Berlin and have also visited some travel retailers there to tell them about our product, we just do not have the funds to advertise as much as we would like to in Berlin.

Case in point, we have just rented one advertising panel at Berlin Tegel Airport, close to the counters where Lufthansa mostly handles their flights to Frankfurt. Though that space is very expensive, I think it makes economic sense.

Also, you have to consider the medium and the clientele being targeted. For example, in Mannheim, we don’t advertise in newspapers or on the street as this would not reach our target niche – business travellers. Instead, we are in contact with major firms and always have to convince them with our fantastic customer care.

In the greater scheme of things, while advertising would bring in more passengers, its costs would not be offset through higher revenue.

So, one impact of this policy is that our morning flight from Berlin to Mannheim is also our flight with the lowest loads.

Check-In counter at City Airport Mannheim – © Niels Trubbach / ch-aviation.com

You’ve now been in business for a couple of months. How have your results been until now?

We have exceeded our own expectations. Though the yield could be a bit better, we are actually very happy about the results. Currently there are around 22 passengers per flight. In comparison, Cirrus, which operated four as opposed to two return flights, achieved 21 passengers per flight on average. And Cirrus was able to make money on top of that!

Do you have any plans to set up or join a Frequent-Flyer (FF) programme?

We‘re looking into this.. In all honesty, our customers are frequent flyers living around Mannheim with many of them having attained some level with some other airline‘s frequent-flyer programme, more often than not, Lufthansa‘s Miles & More. So, taking that into consideration, for someone flying 100‘000 miles a year, the 500 miles earned on our Mannheim-Berlin route is less important compared to the convenience and comfort we offer them.

In any case, I think there is a bit too much hype placed on frequent-flyer programmes.

Dornier 328 in front of the Terminal at Mannheim – © Niels Trubbach / ch-aviation.com

Would the opening of the new Berlin International Airport (BER) have any impact on your business?

Obviously we would like to see Tegel Airport stay open for longer. Aside from its overall lack of attractiveness, there is also the prospect of BER charging higher taxes for small planes which would present us with big problems. With the way things are, small planes visiting Tegel are already paying more. Landing fees start at 26 tons while our airplane has a weight of just 13.9 tons. Landing fees will triple to €900 for a Dornier 328 which of course is not good for us.

Are you planning to open more routes out of Mannheim?

At this time we have no concrete plans to add any other destinations to our network. Currently, we are focussed on developing our Berlin operations into a solid business. But sooner or later we will evaluate flights to Hamburg which would then mean sourcing a second aircraft. While a second aircraft would of course be necessary, it would also be a big risk.

Another idea we have is to launch a weekly flight to Sylt/Westerland – possibly in 2015 using our existing aircraft during the summer season and operated only on weekends.
While using a cost-intensive 30-seater for leisure flights would generally make no financial sense as it needs average yields of around €300 to €350 per passenger on a short to medium return trip, we could make flights to Sylt work given the presence of wealthy tourists that may be willing to pay such prices for a ticket.

But other than those options, we as Rhein-Neckar have no intention of starting leisure flights to destinations other than Sylt as the distribution would require cost-intensive advertising.

But then again, leisure flights might also come about in the form of charters, so who knows.

Headrest covers from MHS Aviation reveal the operator of the aircraft – © Niels Trubbach / ch-aviation.com

The Dornier 328 is renowned for its high operational costs. What makes it the perfect fit for Mannheim?

As I mentioned earlier, only a few comparable aircraft types are able to operate into and out of Mannheim: the Dash-8 -100, -200 and the ATR 42-600 with restrictions. When Cirrus used a Dash 8-100 on flights to Mannheim during [the Dornier’s] maintenance downtime, we received a lot of negative passenger feedback.

In comparison to these aircraft types, the Dornier 328 is very comfortable and convenient for passengers. And even if the type’s production run has finished, it is still up-to-date.

You also have to consider that while a used Dornier 328 costs around €2.5million, a brand new ATR would cost €18million which would, in turn, lead to increased capital costs. And just the fact that we are operating a newer aircraft does not mean an increase in revenue to cover those increased costs.

All in all, despite the fact that even with load restrictions an ATR could still offer more seats than the Dornier 328, in our case, if we want to increase flights, we will simply add more frequencies.

Despite of its high cost per seat, the Dornier 328 is our sole option so we simply cannot complain about it.

Is the Dornier 328 a reliable aircraft?
The Dornier 328 has an excellent record of reliability. In the event of problem, MHS Aviation often has a second aircraft available as back-up based here in Mannheim.

We are very focused on reliability and, of course, also on on-time performance. I can say that flight crews and engineering are collaborating very closely and to a very strong extent.

Located in the middle of the city Mannheim Airport has no space to grow – © Niels Trubbach / ch-aviation.com

Is Mannheim Airport serviceable all year-round?

Mannheim City Airport sometimes becomes a problem in winter as we cannot offer CAT 2 or even CAT 3 operation. On average, for eight to twelve days of the year, when there is strong fog, it is impossible to operate flights and we are forced to use Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden as an alternative airport. Cirrus, for its part, used to land in Saarbrücken.

Actually this was one of our reasons for launching the airline in March. In our opinion, there are only two start-up dates that make sense: shortly after winter to avoid additional costs due to de-icing, cancellations etc. or at the end of the summer holidays..

City Airport Mannheim – © Rhein-Neckar Air

Where do you see yourselves going over the next five years?

Rhein-Neckar Air is not a company that expands for expansion’s sake. We don‘t want to serve a lot of destinations; we just want to focus on a few core markets where we know we can be successful. Maybe in the long-term we’ll serve Hamburg and possibly even a third destination. But, from a realistic point of view, Mannheim is only capable of sustaining flights to two to three destinations at max.

Rhein-Neckar Air – Airline Information

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ch-aviation interview: Eric Vercesi, VP Air Incheon

In this sequel of ch-aviation interviews we present you our first interview with a cargo airline. Thomas Jaeger had the possibility to talk with Eric Vercesi Vice President Sales & Planning at Air Incheon. Air Incheon is a new cargo airline that commenced operations in 2013 and is focused on operations from Seoul Incheon Airport in South Korea to Eastern Russia as well as Japan and China. Currently, the airline operates two Boeing 737-400 freighters with an average age of 23 years.

Air Incheon – Airline Information

Air Incheon – Aircraft and Fleet List

Air Incheon – Recent News

Air Incheon – Contacts

You have launched operations 15 months ago. What were the key reasons for setting up Air Incheon?
It all started with the activities in Sakhalin. Air Incheon is a spin-off of another company called Air Cargo Charter, which also belongs to Mr. Park and which has been operating a Russian Antonov 12 on a charter basis between Sakhalin and Seoul Incheon for about eight years. Because of the demand and the need for a better and more reliable aircraft, Mr. Park decided to create an airline registered in Korea and to operate with a 737. So this is where Air Incheon comes from. And then of course it evolved into a scheduled airline from there.

But are you still working with Antonov 12s today?
No, we do not operate with Antonov 12 any longer and we are not sourcing additional capacity from partners. We only use our own aircraft.

You mentioned Mr. Park also owns Air Incheon, so it is entirely Korean owned?
Air Incheon is 85 percent Korean owned while the other 15 percent in the airline are owned by foreign investors. Concluding, you can say that Mr. Park has built up the business over the years and then saw the need to set up Air Incheon because of the demand from the oil and gas industry in Russia.

Air Incheon Boeing 737-400 Freighter at the inaugural flight to Yantai – © Air Incheon

What is the competitive landscape like on your key routes between Korea and Russia? Do you have competitors?
We do not have competitors per se in the cargo business. The passenger demand is low so competitors can only fly narrowbody aircraft between the two countries, so have very limited belly space available. But that is the situation right now. We cannot think that we will continue to be by ourselves forever so there might be some competition in the future. I would not be surprised if there would be some new players one day.

Who are your customers for cargo being sent to Sakhalin?
It is a typical oil and gas project area where the major project forwarders work, pretty much the same customers worldwide that you would see in Siberia, Africa, the US etc. Around 80 percent of the cargo is coming from seven major freight forwarders with the remaining business coming from a number of smaller agents.

So you are still operating under the radar of Asiana and Korean and they are not interested in this business?
I do not know whether Asiana or Korean Air are interested in flying into Russia with freighters. We are sure they are looking at it. The reason why they do not fly might be that they only operate widebody aircraft and there is just not enough volume to put a 767 or a 777 on those routes. In addition to that, the demand is only one-directional. There is only export to Russia but nearly no import. So the aircraft needs to be make money on the one-way. Only if equipment needs to be removed from Sakhalin there is demand on our flights out of Russia.

Air Incheon operates a fleet of two Boeing 737-400 Freighter – © Air Incheon

The equipment you move to Sakhalin does not all come from South Korea. Are you working with other carriers or does the equipment get shipped by sea to Seoul before?
We have been trying to establish some interline agreements with a number of different carriers. We had success establishing one with Polar Air Cargo so we are able to offer the customers to carry their cargo all the way from Houston to Sakhalin under a single Airway Bill.
I am basically aiming to set up a service for our customers in the mining, oil and gas industries making it possible for them to work with us from their origin to the final destination. Another option we have tried is to establish an interline agreement directly with the Korean carriers but obviously Korean Air is just not interested at all. So we will just have to wait.

Have you evaluated other aircraft before you chose to operate converted 737-400s and when did the decision take place?
We looked at different options. The Boeing 737 turned out to be the best option for us because of the high availability on the market and the low acquisition costs of the airplane. With that being said, the 737 cannot take all the cargo that should be traveling by air into Sakhalin. There are some long or very heavy pieces of cargo that do not fit in the airplane. But close to 92 percent of the cargo that needs to go air freight can be carried with 737s.

Air Incheon handles daily cargo for DHL Express on the ICN to NRT route – © Air Incheon

Are you worried that with so many B737-400s being converted right now you might run into a problem with your fleet strategy later on given there simply will not be aircraft available anymore for conversion?
I do not think it is a worry yet. Honestly, maybe the situation is going to change where we will need to turn around and go to lessors already in control of converted B737s as opposed to us going on the market to buy an aircraft to convert it ourselves. It is going to depend on the situation and we will have to play it by ear when the situation comes. It will be depending on price and timing. It is true that if we need an aircraft to be available quickly, meaning within four to six months from now, we will not have time to go buy an aircraft and send it through conversion. We cannot just buy five aircraft just in case.

Were there any challengers on getting the licensing or was that straight forward?
No, the process was according to the Korea Ministry of Transport regulations. There were a number of items and tasks to fulfill which were done. The AOC was awarded to Air Incheon as planned by the MoT without major problems.

You also operate in the express market between Korea and Japan. It that your side business to keep the aircraft busy or did you purposely do that from the beginning?
It is a little bit of both. Our business model is really oriented towards the Sakhalin projects. We have opportunities to fly to Japan in the evenings or to fly to China early in the mornings so we do it. We have the airplanes and we have the crews so there is no reason why not to get into that market. With that being said, we are always concentrating on the oil and gas projects as our basis but it takes a long time to get the traffic rights. We already have traffic rights for Russia of course. The next step is to be able to go to Mongolia. There is a big potential to fly cargo to the mines.

Where do you see Air Incheon in two or three years? You obviously want to go into Mongolia but are there any other steps that you have ahead?
The expansion depends on what is going on with China. The Chinese carriers are expanding very quickly outside of China as well so we have to look at how to continue in that market and under what conditions. Other development areas include Central Asia and South East Asia (possibly requiring larger aircraft like the B757) and we are also still looking at Japan as a very high potential market.

Thank you for the interview!

Air Incheon – Airline Information

Air Incheon – Aircraft and Fleet List

Air Incheon – Recent News

Air Incheon – Contacts

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ch-aviation interview: Martin Gauss, CEO Air Baltic

Three years ago Air Baltic posted record losses and was suspected to be the next Flag Carrier to fail. Today Air Baltic is one of the very few European success stories. Max Oldorf talked to Martin Gauss, former CEO at DBA (Deutsche BA) and Malev, now CEO at Air Baltic about what it takes to reanimate a dying airline.

Air Baltic – Airline Information

Air Baltic – Aircraft and Fleet List

Air Baltic – Recent News

Air Baltic – Airline Route Network

Air Baltic has recently been through a very rough patch culminating in a major restructuring program. How did it perform in 2013?
We are going to publish our [2013] results at the end of March. While we had originally anticipated a multi-million euro loss, it now appears our figures are going to be far better than expected.

Three years ago Air Baltic was in trouble and faced possible closure. What has changed since you joined the company?
Well back then, I was asked if I would like to take over the management of an airline in dire straits and if so, what would I do to rescue it. So, I presented four different restructuring options to the airline’s shareholder – the government of Latvia represented by the prime minister and his cabinet – and told them which one of the four turnaround plans I personally preferred and what each would cost. All four proposals varied both in terms of overheads and depth of cost-cutting measures. In the end, we settled on a plan – my own preferred option in fact – which although not the cheapest to implement, was not the hardest to undertake in terms of restructuring either. Once we had settled on a way forward, we brought in Boston Consulting to help us iron out the finer details. In addition, I also brought in people I could trust. In my opinion, it was the plan which could deliver the results the airline needed over the ensuing three years, and it has certainly paid off.

Given the chance, would you do it the same way all over again? For example, you abolished your business class at first only to reintroduce it later.
Like any restructuring plan, I had a checklist of sorts involving hundreds of tasks to be undertaken. However, it is only when you actually implement a policy that you sometimes discover that it would be best to maintain the status-quo. This was the case with our Business Class. Whereas the previous administration’s plan had focused on growth, ours concentrates on improving yields and therefore profitability which, I might add, we are learning to do rather successfully.

Air Baltic Boeing 737-500 taking off at Zurich Airport – © Tis Meyer / planepics.org

The Latvian government has poured a lot of money into the company. Are you afraid that the European Commission (EC) may force Air Baltic to pay back the subsidies as in the case of Hungary’s now defunct carrier, Malev? 
Malev was a completely different case. When I joined the airline, the EC had already investigated the case and a year prior to the closure, it was more or less clear that we would be forced to pay back the subsidies. However, despite strong operating results and a positive EBIT (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes), Malev would never have been able to repay the funds. It was then that I decided to leave the airline. In Air Baltic’s case, it is still not clear as to whether or not government has provided “state-aid” in the strictest sense.
When the airline needed a cash-injection, both the private shareholder and government (as the second shareholder) decided to increase its share capital. However, when it was discovered that the private shareholder was no longer able to provide the necessary funds, there resulted in two possible courses of action: either the capital drive be abandoned or government intervene on the private investor’s behalf. Given the gravity of the situation, the latter option was taken. It was then that the EC launched its investigation. Hopefully, the EC will agree with our position that government acted in a normal capacity as an ordinary investor but if not, the financial impact will be manageable. Quite honestly, I am confident about the outcome.

How sustainable is the actual turnaround plan? Comparatively speaking, what are the primary differences between your current approach and the old one?
Well, the old strategy focused primarily on boosting growth using very low fares to lure as many passengers as possible. The problem with that approach was that despite growth occurring, no one bothered to keep tab of the costs incurred to make said growth possible. This resulted in fares on some routes being either too low or too high.
In contrast, our current plan has focused on reducing capacity and altering our pricing structure. Over the last few years, we have terminated several loss making routes and enforced a benchmark that all new routes have to turn a profit within a year of their first launch.

How do you price your flights?
We use a system developed by Lufthansa. Essentially, our fares are priced according to routing and point-to-point. For example, if we can offer a convenient flight connection with a stop in Riga, then this route is priced separately. Furthermore, ancillary revenue is very important for us and makes up for a significant percentage of our total passenger revenue.

Picture from the past. Air Baltic’s Boeing 757-200 are now on dry-lease at Royal Flight – © Tis Meyer / planepics.org

Your two Boeing 757s are not currently used on the Air Baltic network. Will they return at some point in the near future?
Currently they are on sub-lease to Royal Flight and have been painted in their livery. Though Royal Flight does not use them, they are airworthy. However, while we are currently making a loss on the two B757s, the loss is less than if the two aircraft were in use on our network. The plan is for Royal Flight to lease the two jets from the lessor directly once our leasing contract expires.

Are you prepared for possible delays with the Bombardier CSeries?
As a stopgap, we have started to buy some of our current aircraft from their lessors – currently we own five Boeing 737-300s and 737-500s. So, should the C-Series experience delays, we will still be able to cover our operational needs using these five aircraft. In any case, we would ideally need 12 months notice over any possible delays. That would give us enough time to extend some lease contracts. However, I have to say that we have a very good relationship with Bombardier and, just a few weeks ago, they confirmed that they expect delivery of our first CS300 to go ahead as planned in 2015 with a further five due in 2016.

Are you planning to convert any of your C-Series options into orders?
I am not authorized to comment on our options, but I can say that with our current fleet consisting of only thirteen B737-300/500s and with ten CS300s on order, we do have plans to grow once we are profitable.We do not want to make any further cuts in the future.

Air Baltic Boeing 737 at Riga – © Air Baltic

You have recently introduced a free bus shuttle service from Riga to six cities in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Who is footing the bill?
We are and no municipality or government subsidizes it. We use it to boost our presence in these regions as it makes travel much easier for our passengers. Only Air Baltic passengers can travel on these coach services and if the bus or the flight is delayed, we are responsible for finding an alternative flight connection or transport. We had a similar system at Malev and it worked well there.

Are you planning to expand your partnership with Etihad Airways? Whose idea was it initially?
It was our idea to approach Etihad and we are happy that it has worked out. We operate these flights using our service concept and branding while Etihad just adds their flight code.
When we started flights from Riga to Abu Dhabi in December, we did so without much preparation resulting in a lower level of uptake than would normally have been expected. But despite this, we persevered it in order to exploit the winter market. You see, in the beginning, most passengers travelled point-to-point but the number of those traveling beyond has risen rapidly.
All things taken into consideration, we are happy with the outcome. And Etihad is happy with the codeshare as well. One anomaly of the route is that for around two months during the summer it doesn’t really make sense to fly direct [to Abu Dhabi]. In light of this, we are currently evaluating whether to route the flight via one of Etihad’s European hubs – Amsterdam or Milan for instance – or to continue to fly direct during the period. As of this moment, we have wet-leased an Airbus A319 from CSA Czech Airlines for flights due to a lack of suitable aircraft in our own fleet. While the Boeing 737-300 could manage Riga – Abu Dhabi nonstop, the same cannot be said of the return leg given the strong headwinds. The arrival of the C-Series however should change all that.

Previously, Air Baltic offered international flights out of Vilnius. Are you planning to operate flights out Tallinn or Vilnius again at all?
Frankly speaking, both local carriers in Estonia and Lithuania face big challenges, but let us see where they go, as any decision taken on whether to begin these flights would hardly depend on the development of those two carriers. However, from our point of view, we still carry a lot of passengers from Lithuania and Estonia through our hub in Riga so there is potential on some routes. Furthermore, while we will only commence flights if we are certain they will turn a profit, we also have to make sure that no new routes negatively impact the number of passengers transiting via our Riga hub.

Air Baltic Bombardier Q400 at Oslo – © Tis Meyer / planepics.org

Ryanair and Wizzair are considering serving more central airports from Riga in the future. How would that impact your business?
Well, since nearly all our central routes are flown in competition to a low cost airline, any move to serve more central airports on their part will likely lead to added price pressure. But given that price pressure in Latvia is already very high, I expect us to manage it. On other [less central] routes, we mostly operate on a high-frequency basis using turboprop aircraft. An example of this is our routes to Oslo or Stockholm. Unlike low-cost carriers which can only offer a few weekly flights, we are able to offer multiple-daily frequencies thereby forcing business travelers to choose us. And even the higher per-seat costs associated with the Bombardier Q400 NextGen do not matter because we rotate aircraft types in according to demand.
An example would be our Riga to Tallinn and Riga to Munich services. If both flights are well booked, we deploy a Boeing 737 to both destinations. If only the Munich flight is satisfactorily booked, then we only send a Boeing to Munich. If neither flight is adequately filled, and we only have one Boeing 737 and one Q400 available, then the smaller aircraft is deployed on the longer route. Our fleet makeup allows us a lot of flexibility in terms of equipment choice and because of that, our overall costs are kept low.

Wizzair and Ryanair are both very active in Eastern Europe. Which carrier is more dangerous in your eyes?
Both carriers present challenges, but they do have their differences. For example, while Ryanair is a lot cheaper than Wizzair, it will abandon an unprofitable route a lot sooner than Wizzair will. But we shouldn’t focus too much on competing against them. Our real challenge will come from Russian airlines whose use of large B737s on Moscow – Riga flights will give them a much lower cost base. Moscow is a very important market for us but unfortunately the competition is now becoming more and more active.

In the long run, can Air Baltic continue to exist without a big partner airline?
Even with its current size, Air Baltic has been able to operate independently for a couple of years now. When I started, the first target the airline’s owners set me was to stop bleeding money. We have now reached that goal smartly using the resources available. But, what we wouldneed is an external partner to finance our CSeries order. Given that the contracts have excellent conditions, there might be interested parties. In any case, our current owner is unlikely to finance the aircraft so we will need a sale-and-lease-back plan or an external investor at some point.
So to answer your question, Air Baltic could, at some point, need a strong partner but before that can happen, the government has to decide what their future plans for the airline are and whether or not they want to sell it.

Martin Gauss with a Boeing 737 model – © Air Baltic

Mr. Gauss, we’re told you’ve been given the nickname “Firefighter” as a result of all your previous experience with restructuring loss-making carriers. Is this true?
(Laughs) I’m afraid so. But I haven’t adopted it…

Do you ever have the desire to go and work for a robust and sustainable airline?
No not really. My private life is perfectly suited to the role of a “firefighter”. You see, my family and most of my friends live in Munich and I have a well organized social life there that can be handled with limited effort. That’s why I commute a lot between the two cities (Riga and Munich).
I cannot imagine permanently moving with my family to another city let alone a country. Actually at the moment, because the turnaround at Air Baltic has worked out, I find myself thinking about what’s next up to come. I am not the type to sit around and grow old in a specific company and I have no problems with leaving a company once my work there is finished. I was at DBA (Deutsche BA) for 12 years until things turned around. After it was sold, I moved on with no regrets.

Despite your hand in the business’s turnaround, one often only hears the name “Hans Rudolf Woehrl” mentioned in relation to the successful restructuring and sale of DBA to Air Berlin. How do you feel about that?
I am absolutely fine with that. Woehrl took a risk in buying the company under his name. He then took an even bigger risk in appointing Peter Wojahn and me as directors. Lastly, his biggest risk was selling the company – us included – to Air Berlin. All in all, it’s the owner who takes the risks and makes the decisions and therefore it is he who deserves the credit. In that case, it was Hans Rudolf Woehrl and I personally have no problem getting less recognition than he for my own work. Normally if you do a good job the recognition comes from that and in all honesty, I actually prefer not being in the spotlight as it then means I can still enjoy my private life.

Air Baltic Boeing 737 at the maintenance hangar – © Air Baltic

So that pretty much means becoming the new CEO of Lufthansa wouldn’t be that appealing to you?
I always answer this question with the old saying – “Stick to what you know best.” In fact, it is a completely different task altogether. To master such a job, you would have to be as qualified as Carsten Spohr is. He has been at Lufthansa and its subsidiaries for many years and knows its structures very well. He is also at the perfect age for it and has a network that he can rely on. So from my point, he is the perfect man for this job and to bring in another airline manager to replace him should only be done so as a Plan B. While I don’t know Carsten Spohr very well, when I look at what he brings to the table, and considering the rough patch Lufthansa is going through, he is the perfect choice and I wish him the best of luck and success.

So you cannot imagine yourself running a big multinational company?
I don’t think anyone sees me as the boss of a multinational company. They more likely see me as the guy that gets the job done. But never say never. Up until today, whenever I have left an old job, I have had no clue what is next to come.

How do you live with that uncertainty and do you sometimes wish you could be in a completely different industry sector?
Actually I cope with it very well. I have never been afraid of not finding another job. In fact, it was always the opposite and even though I am 45, I still have a few years of work left in me.
Regarding your second question, I would be very glad if one day I could compare how my knowledge of turning around airlines, when applied to other industries, performs against that of those industry’s professionals. For example, within the automotive industry, would an airline manager achieve the same or better results there because the airline industry is so competitive, or would he fail because in actual fact, the automotive industry is the tougher market to survive in? That’s a question that would really interest me but up until now no one, unfortunately, has come to me and asked if I would like to take on an automotive company. (laughs).

Picture from the past (2006) DBA (Deutsche BA) Boeing 737-300 at Hamburg – © Tis Meyer / planepics.org

Where do you see yourself in five years?
I haven’t really thought about that just yet. In my private life certainly, but when it comes to work, I would simply like to have an interesting job. Thanks to the DBA deal, I am very fortunate in that I can operate independently and thus focus on my own success. That’s probably why I am only attracted to jobs where I see the possibility of my success shining through and if I could see myself being successful [in that role]. That will always be the key driver in my choice of what I do next. I probably see myself as being more successful than the shareholder in that current situation does. That’s how it was at Woehrl/DBA, at Malev and at Air Baltic; they thought it would be impossible to change the status quo given the political and economic situation. But I have to admit that it has been a completely different experience at Air Baltic compared to DBA. Back then, for example, there wasn’t any social media at all so it was a completely different ball game.

Our final question is one we got on Facebook: Do you have any plans to resume the Dublin route?
Well, as long as Ryanair serves the route it makes no sense for us to relaunch our Dublin services. However, we have just opened Riga-Aberdeen which keeps our aircraft busy. So while Dublin is a leisure and workers route only, Aberdeen is an oil route that connects with Baku (in Azerbaijan). Aberdeen only makes sense because we serve Baku as well.

Thank you for the interview!

Air Baltic – Airline Information

Air Baltic – Aircraft and Fleet List

Air Baltic – Recent News

Air Baltic – Airline Route Network

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ch-aviation interview: Kwaku Antwi-Boasiako, CCO Antrak Air

In this issue of ch-aviation interviews we are meeting Antrak Air, a domestic airline from Ghana. The airline uses ATR72-500 aircraft and has been operating for over 10 years now in an environment where most airlines only last for a short period. Niels Trubbach talked with Antrak Air Chief Commercial Officer Kwaku Antwi-Boasiako.

Antrak Air – Airline Information

Antrak Air – Aircraft and Fleet List

Antrak Air – Recent News

Antrak Air – Airline Route Network

Is a turboprop aircraft the right aircraft in Ghana? You are operating turboprop aircraft while your competitors mostly use jet aircraft.
Antrak and Fly540 both operate the ATR 72-500 aircraft. Modern turboprops (like the ATR 72-500 & ATR 72-600) combine fuel efficiency and generally lower operational cost with jetliner cabin comfort. Given the short sectors that we operate in Ghana (longest 75 minutes for Tamale), modern turboprop seems to be the appropriate aircraft for domestic operations. That is even more significant given the high cost of aviation fuel in Ghana. That said, it is conceivable that future market conditions will require a rethink.

On the other side: Can your competitors reach higher fares through their jet aircraft?
That is so, jet operators charge higher fares and that is understandable due to relatively higher cost of operations. In the end, it comes down to market share and maximization of profit. We are happy with our current market share and hopefully, once we switch to dry lease, we can lower our costs and operate more efficiently and profitably.

Looking at the development of the market. How was the situation when you started?
Prior to September 2003 when Antrak and CiTylinK both started domestic operations, there were basically no scheduled air transport services for the general public.

What were the main challenges during the start-up process?
Unlike today that it is relatively easier to acquire an Air Carriers Licence (ACL) and an Air Operator Certificate (AOC), it took the better part of 2 years for the authorities to grant Antrak its licence to operate. That was the biggest challenge. The other major challenge was to convince the public about the safety of air travel, given the fatal accident 3 years earlier that involved an aircraft operated by the Ghana Air Force. Then also, given the general economic conditions at the time, the fares seemed high for many ordinary travellers, though the fares were not much higher than they are for peak flights today.

Over the last decade the economy in Africa has changed a lot. What were the most important steps for the development of your airline and the market overall?
Growth in the Ghanaian economy, particularly with the discovery and commercial production of oil, started the growth in the aviation sector, particularly for the business community. Antrak and CiTylinK both took advantage of the environment and opened up new routes and schedules, especially on the Accra-Takoradi sector. That led to some growth in passenger throughput between 2010 and 2011, largely from corporate clientel but also some reasonable patronage from the general public. For the general public though, it is fair to say that the liberalization policy of the Ghana Civil Aviation Authority that led to the entry of Starbow and Fly540 in late 2011, should be credited with generating the major boost to the development of the domestic aviation market, especially on the Accra-Kumasi route, from the last quarter of 2011 to date.

In the recent years new airlines have started operations in Ghana. Is the market growing as fast as the capacity does or is the capacity growing faster than the market, resulting in lower fares?
Most observers would agree that there is over-capacity in the market, and operators have rightly been worried. Overcapacity has led to intense competition that has led to low fares. The current size of the market (778,466 passenger throughput in 2013) is not big enough for the 4 active airlines. The authorities have announced that no new licences will be issued for domestic operations for the time being.

To understand the market: Who is the standard air passenger within Ghana?
At the moment, given the low fares, almost everybody is a standard air passenger. You have the regular business travellers from the mining, oil and gas, financial services, and other business sectors, government and other public officials, individual traders, students (especially in tertiary institutions), foreign tourists, NGO workers and individuals travelling over the weekend for funerals and other family engagements.

Aside of other airline companies, who do you compete against? How high is the fare difference to for instance bus services? Do you see an increasing number of passengers, that are willing to pay more for flight ticket instead using a bus?
Aside of other airlines, there are bus operators. The average airfare is about 4 times a bus fare to the same destination, while air travel is 5 times faster. There is very high safety risk with road transportation, including high rate of fatal accidents (about 2,000 deaths per annum), armed highway robbery and poor quality of road infrastructure. It is fair to say that if the general economic conditions improve such that a larger pool of middle class is created, air transport and road transport will not really be in competition. They will rather complement each other.

Looking at your competitors. How do you differ in service and fares?
In terms of service, Antrak provides better frequency and network coverage than our competitors. We also provide lowest fares on the market.

In Europe the amount of airport taxes, flight control, governmental taxes etc often make up for the largest part of the air fare. How is the situation in Ghana?
For domestic aviation, airport tax is GHS5 (just over US$2 by current exchange rate). In January 2014 however, VAT Act 2013 (Act 870) came into effect that imposes 17.5% tax on domestic air transportation. None of the domestic airlines has started charging the VAT. A petition is being sent to government by all domestic airlines, to exempt domestic air transportation from the new VAT. We also pay for air navigation but that cost does not feature directly on air tickets.

All scheduled domestic airlines in Ghana have an online booking system. How many passengers use it?
I can’t tell for the other airlines. For Antrak at the moment, less than 10% of bookings are done online. This is due to challenges we have had integrating a payment gateway. Once the technical challenge is addressed by the middle of February, we expect more online bookings. We also expect to roll out our mobile booking application by March 2014, which will also increase online booking traffic.

How are airline tickets usually bought in Ghana? What payment methods are used?

Apart from online bookings, there are bookings via travel agents. We also have corporate clients who have their own online access to manage their own ticketing. Then we have airline airport and town offices where passengers walk in to make reservations. Payment is largely done by cash, but there are VISA and MasterCard point of sale terminals as well. Also, airlines have relationship with some local banks where passengers with reservations can make payment and have their tickets issued.

You currently offer flights from Accra to four domestic destinations? Do you intend to extend your domestic network? Could domestic flights between other cities, that does not touch Accra, make sense?
Antrak have plans to operate from Accra to Wa in the Upper West Region in 2014. We also plan to launch a new Kumasi-Takoradi route this year, as well as resume our Kumasi-Tamale operation that was launched in 2013 but had to be suspended due to lack of aircraft capacity.

Have you any plans to fly international routes?
We plan to start regional operations in 2014

The mass of international carriers in the region are flying to several destinations on a low frequency basis and with a lot of stops. Why don´t there is a hub concept with daily flights? Does passengers prefer airlines from their country?
There is no doubt the sub-region requires a lot more airlines with high frequency, point-to-point stops. We at Antrak see that as an opportunity to get into regional operations, after consolidating our domestic operations. I have no evidence to suggest that passengers prefer airlines from their country.

You now have been operative for several years. What are the main problems and difficulties for the airline business in your region and what are the advantages?
Looking at Ghana’s domestic aviation industry, the key difficulties have been poor airport infrastructure, weak financial backbone of operators, high cost of aviation fuel, high dependency on imported equipment, spares and technical expertise as well as small market size due to weak economy. Regionally, the potential is still huge, though some national governments are still reluctant to fully comply with the open-skies policy of the African Union as enshrined in the Yamoussoukro Decision. For instance, some Ghanaian domestic airlines are still struggling to obtain permit to operate from Accra to Lagos. The main advantage we have in the region is that the market is still untapped and there are great opportunities for airlines like Antrak to succeed within the region. Antrak have a permit to operate to Lagos, and that will be our first regional destination.

What do you think is the reason, why you are flying successfully in so many years?
Over the past 10 years since Antrak began operations, the company has gone through difficult times as a result of a combination of some of the above factors. Its success in Ghana is largely attributed to the vision, business acumen and resourcefulness of the Owner and Chairman, Alhaji Asoma Banda, with the support of hardworking staff. Strategically, Antrak has been looking way into the future when most of the above challenges, if not all, would have been surmounted, to give a platform where it can flourish as an indigenous Ghanaian airline operating to all continents and providing a service that matches the best in the world. This is the driving vision and passion that challenge Antrak to ride whatever storm we face and to ensure that we are able to take the company to the next level, beginning from 2014.

Looking in the future. What do you think the market will develop like in the next years and in which ways will you have to change your business model?
The market in Ghana and the sub-region has the potential to grow on average 7-10% per annum over the next decade. There is likely to be more and more local operators involved. Local operators will raise their quality and safety standards and provide high frequency point-to-point services across the region. We are likely to have local giants that will compete strongly against the likes of BA, KLM and Delta on the key European and North American routes, while certain key Middle East and Asian routes will become more competitive. Antrak will be there in the mix and we are clear in our mind what business model will get us there.

Thank you for the interview!

Antrak Air – Airline Information

Antrak Air – Aircraft and Fleet List

Antrak Air – Recent News

Antrak Air – Airline Route Network

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Introducing ch-aviation directory

ch-aviation is pleased to announce the launch of its latest product, the ch-aviation directory!

Based on ch-aviation’s extensive and well regarded ch-aviation pro airline knowledge base, the ch-aviation directory:

  • Includes well over 3.500 active operators with current airline status, airline type, website URL, IATA and ICAO Code, homebase, country and continent, launch year, alliance details and stock market symbol.
  • Gets you direct access to decision makers at over 1.700 airlines and operators that have over 8.000 senior management contacts listed in the directory including name, job title, verified e-mail address and LinkedIn profile ID.
  • Lists legal name and address, phone number, company e-mail, LinkedIn company profile, Facebook and Twitter profiles for the world’s 1.200 most important airlines.
  • Is delivered to you as a MS Excel or Comma Separated Value file every month allowing easy integration to your internal CRM or further filtering and processing by your sales and marketing team.

The ch-aviation directory is a data product provided either in MS Excel or Comma Separated Value format, available as an annual subscription with monthly updates including new start-ups, corrections and even more contacts being delivered fresh to your inbox or FTP folder every month.

The annual subscription fee is EUR 1.150,- with attractive packages available to combine online ch-aviation pro access for you and your colleagues with the monthly ch-aviation directory deliveries.

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ch-aviation pro – New Features

ch-aviation has exciting new features ready for you and your colleagues with the new airline profiles we have made available for ch-aviation pro. As of today, you will be able to use our airline intelligence information even more effectively thanks to the following new product features we have just rolled out for you:

  • Find the right contacts to get in touch on the new Contacts tab giving you instant access to over 8.000 airline executive level contacts with names, job titles, e-mail addresses and LinkedIn profile IDs.
ch-aviation Start Up Tracker
  • Keep track of the progress of all worldwide start-up carriers and contact them first with our Start-Up Tracker allowing you to filter and sort start-ups by Last Update, Initial Announcement, Planned Launch Quarter, Continent/Country and with direct access to fleet details and executive level contacts (where available).
  • The enhanced Airline Profiles now include legal name and address, phone number, LinkedIn company page and e-mail address for the 1.000 most important airlines.
  • Extended Airline Search options allowing you to now search airlines by any combination of Name/IATA/ICAO Code, Alliance, Airline Type, Airline Status, Homebase Airport/Metro Group/State/Country/Continent, Airport/Metro Group/State/Country/Continent served with scheduled flights, Aircraft Type in fleet and/or fleet size.
  • Create Airline Lists with your favorite airlines (i.e. your customers, your prospects, operators in your target market) and then use your Favorite Lists to filter News Articles or future Airline Search results.
  • Explore the industry’s most extensive directory of Airline IT providers giving you details on the reservation system (or “PSS”) used by each scheduled airline including profiles and customer lists for all providers.

 

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ch-aviation interview: Richard Kongsteien, VP Widerøe

Widerøe´s Flyveselskap, styled as Widerøe, is one of the most unique regional airlines in the world. Through the decades, the Norwegian airline has developed a strong commuter network in the country, subsidized by the government. Currently the Widerøe fleet consists of 41 Dash 8-100/200/300/400 aircraft. Furthermore Widerøe also operates a few international flights from Norway to Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

During the recent decade, Widerøe has been fully owned by SAS Scandinavian Airlines. In 2013 cash-stricken SAS Scandinavian Airlines sold a 80 percent stake in profit-making Widerøe to a group of investors.

Niels Trubbach talked with Richard Kongsteien, Vice President, about the future development of the airline as an independent company.

Widerøe - Airline Information

Widerøe - Aircraft and Fleet List

Widerøe - Recent News

Widerøe - Airline Route Network

Wideroe has just been sold to a new owner – who are they?
They are a Norwegian investor group consisting of two large transport companies – Fjord1 and Torghattan – both of which mainly operate public ferry and bus services. At present, SAS Scandinavian Airlines maintains a 20% stake in Widerøe.

With the change in ownership, do you anticipate any accompanying changes to your business model and strategy?
The new owner has no intention of changing our business model. As it stands, we are profitable and performing very well in fact. However, our biggest challenge is learning to stand on our own two feet. When we were a part of SAS Scandinavian Airlines, we were integrated into their processes – IT in particular. Now that we are independent, we have to learn how to be self-sufficient. In retrospect, our time under SAS was very beneficial because SAS professionalized our operations. All in all, we are sad to leave.

Through its feeder service, Widerøe provided SAS Scandinavian Airlines with a respectable number of passengers on domestic flights as well as on international flights. Will you continue to cooperate with SAS?
We will keep the agreement with SAS and Star Alliance. While we would be free to compete, we have no plans to do so. For example, in Norway we continue to cooperate with SAS in the 80-seats-and-less market. SAS however continues to operate all other services.

©: Widerøe Dash 8-300 at Tromsø – Tis Meyer / planepics.org

SAS Scandinavian Airlines has switched to a system of one-way fares. Do you offer the same or only return fares?
In most processes we have tried to be very similar to SAS, but in some respects we still differ. We have the same system as SAS in one-way fares.

UK-based BMI Regional plans to start Tromsoe (TOS) to Stavanger (SVG) via Harstad/Narvik (EVE) flights. Do you think they will be successful?
We fly the Tromsoe (TOS) to Stavanger (SVG) route too, albeit with Dash 8-Q400 instead of the faster Embraer jet. With time a critical factor in the oil industry, and given the high yields, you do not need high load factors to be profitable. In light of this, we currently have no plans to change either our services or pricing on this route.

Your commuter business mostly operates under Public Service Obligation (PSO) contracts. How big are the subsidies on those commuter flights?
It varies a lot. On some routes the subsidy can constitute a fair share of the revenue, while on other routes it is zero.

©: Widerøe Dash 8-100 at Hammerfest - Tis Meyer / planepics.org

In 2012, DAT – Danish Air Transport won a major contract to operate flights to Lofoten. However, Widerøe managed to force a new tender and subsequently won the contract. How was this possible? In the past, we saw a lot of carriers operating domestic Norwegian PSO routes. You now are the sole PSO operator in Norway. Why could the others not survive?
Norway is a tough environment. Operations are difficult and costs high. Most of the other carriers over-calculated their fares and passenger numbers and at the same time under-estimated their operational overheads. As a result, they didn’t last long. Widerøe has always managed to keep costs low and concentrated on being reliable.

Well, the aircraft they planned to use was simply not suitable for the route in that it was incapable of landing under certain conditions. On the basis of that, we protested and won.

Are there any plans to build more airports in Norway?
There are plans to build a major airport capable of handling large aircraft in the region of Nordland. It would replace the regional airports of Mosjøen, Sandnessjøen and Mo i Rana. The three smaller airports are STOL-airports and are currently part of our network. There are, however, no plans for additional commuter airports.

©: Honningsvåg Airport - Tis Meyer / planepics.org

In Narvik they are planning to build a bridge that would reduce the travel time from Narvik to Harstad/Narvik Airport to 40 minutes. But, as a consequence, Narvik Airport, which is located very close to downtown Narvik, is expected to close. What is your take on this?The Norwegian government is in the process of building a new, albeit costly, road network. How do you perceive this development and does road transport have an impact on your passenger loads?
In Norway, the number of remote regions with a small airport is growing. You see, air transport connectivity is very important for remote areas – If you close the airport, you essentially „close“ society. In fact, regions without an airport see their economies shrink which then impacts negatively on the size of their populations. So, while you need a good road network, the car will never be able to compete with the airplane on most routes because the airplane is always faster.

We currently serve both Narvik and Harstad/Narvik so we will probably lose some passengers as a result. But, the closure of Narvik Airport and the construction of the bridge will be benficial in the longrun because after all, a 40-minute commute is not so bad. In the greater scheme of things, it is simply not efficient to keep two airports, that are in such close proximity to one another, operational.

A lot of aircraft night-stop at remote airports so they can operate flights to major transfer airports and cities in the early morning. Their crews mostly overnight in a hotel. Have you considered basing your crews out of smaller airports instead?
Well, our planning and dispatching schedule is very challenging. We do, however, night-stop at 18 of our 34 served airports. So, establishing homebases there would be ideal for our crews and would save us a lot of money on hotel bills and the like. But, owing to economic and operational reasons, it is not possible for us to do so at this stage.

©: Widerøe Dash 8-100 at Oslo - Tis Meyer / planepics.org

Your commuter flights are largely denominated by Bombardier Q100, Q200 and Q300 series aircraft. But, in light of your impending fleet renewal plans and that the ATR42-600 would prove unsuitable given its operational constraints, how do you intend to proceed?
We’ve been researching new aircraft and have been pleasantly surprised by some of the options available to us. Presently, our current fleet is undergoing an upgrade which will extend its operational liftspan with 40‘000 cycles. We’re also replacing some of our aircraft with equivalent lower-cycle aircraft. As such, our current fleet of 100, Q200 and Q300s has around 10 to 15 years left on the clock.

Your airline suffers a lot of cancellations. What is the reason for this?
We currently have a no-cancellation rate of 96 percent. But, among the reasons are the Dash 8-100’s very low dispatch rate – a very big concern to us. Another important reason for the high number of cancellations is the absense of maintenance facilities at some remote airports. As a result, we have to ferry technicians and equipment to the airport before we can even begin to repair the aircraft. As you can imagine, this is very time consuming. Even minor technical problems that can be quickly fixed can cause cancellations and/or huge delays. So to remedy the situation, we now have three reserve aircraft on standby which has helped us reduce the number of cancellations in comparison to say, Summer 2012 when we did not have so much reserve capacity.

Where is your fleet maintenance done?
We currently do all our fleet maintenance in-house in Bodø (BOO) and Sandefjord (TRF) where our facilities are well organized and competitive. We are also outsourcing some of our maintenance.

©: Widerøe Dash 8-200 approaching Leknes - Tis Meyer / planepics.org

Do you have any plans to go international and maybe launch operations in other countries?
Prior to our sale to the new owners, we were the only regional SAS subsidiary. In terms of international expansion, we have been looking at it, but currently we have no plans to launch operations outside Norway; Sweden and Denmark included. Demand for regional air transport in these countries is not as high as in Norway. And in Sweden, for example,the market is served by NextJet and other regional carriers that cooperate with SAS. Also ACMI operators have filled the gaps for SAS.

What kind of airline was Widerøe in the beginning and how did it survive the following decades?
Widerøe was founded by Vigo Widerøe in 1934. It was run by a group of pioneers who envisioned connecting Norwegian cities via aircraft. It was a lot of hard work to keep the airline running and they nearly always struggled financially. However, by one means or another, Vigo Widerøe always managed to find funding. When in the 1960s Håkon Kyllingmark became Norway’s Minister of Transport he, together with Vigo Widerøe, planned the country’s first scheduled commuter network with Widerøe to fly to the new airports. So, after they had selected the aircraft, they constructed dozens of suitable airports with 800-meter long runways. Current regional airports were originally one-man operations in the early days; a single employee was responsible for the tower and after the aircraft had landed, was responsible for ground-operations. When finished, he would head back to the tower to direct the aircraft for departure. Over the following decades we have obviously increased capacity and improved operations.

Where do you see your airline in a few years time?
Widerøe will face several challenges over the coming years with the most burning issue likely to be that of fleet renewal. And we intend to maintain our role as Norway’s leading regional operator.

Thank you for the interview!

Widerøe - Airline Information

Widerøe - Aircraft and Fleet List

Widerøe - Recent News

Widerøe - Airline Route Network

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ch-aviation interview: Trade Air

Founded in 1994, Trade Air has become a well-known player within the European charter market. Currently the Croatian airline operates two Fokker 100 aircraft and has recently begun scheduled domestic services with a wet-leased Embraer 120.

Max Oldorf talked with Managing Director, Captain Marko Cvijin and Sanja Ples, Marketing and Sales Director about the current state of the charter market, future fleet renewal plans and their new scheduled services in Croatia.

Trade Air - Airline Information

Trade Air – Aircraft and Fleet List

Trade Air – Recent News

Trade Air has been in the charter market since 1994. In your opinion, what have been the most significant changes in the market between then and now?
Marko Cvijin: Well, we started off in 1994 as a cargo carrier for DHL. Then, in 2005, we entered the passenger market with the arrival of our first Fokker. Since then, the passenger charter market has changed dramatically. One period in particular, the Downturn in 2008, had an enormous impact on the industry and its effects are still being felt to this day. Overall, I would say we survived the downturn because we own our planes and are debt-free.

©: Trade Air Fokker 100 at Zurich – Tis Meyer / planepics.org

 

What are passenger charter market conditions like right now?
Marko Cvijin: It is very different from 2005/6 when we started. In retrospect, that was a good time to have entered the market. In terms of current market conditions, the situation is improving and I think the worst is behind us.

Croatia joined the European Union (EU) in July 2013. Has anything changed for you since then?
Marko Cvijin: Yes it has. Prior to joining the EU, we had to apply for traffic rights when operating regional charter flights. Some countries, such as Spain, Sweden and France, were particularly difficult to gain entry into because they protected their domestic carriers. However, since our entry into the EU, that red-tape has now been removed and we are now seeing a rise in charter inquiries. Seeing as we operate 99% of our flights outside Croatia, we consider ourselves to be global Croatian carrier.

You are a Fokker 100 operator and you yourself are a Fokker 100 pilot. What do you like about the type?
Marko Cvijin: From a pilot´s perspective, the aircraft is very easy to fly. It can use short runways and has a very good range. From an operator’s perspective, well, maintenance costs could be lower and from a commercial perspective it lacks some 100 to 200 miles of range; range that we would like to have in order to perform flights from Moscow to Western Europe. Our biggest issues are maintenance costs even though we do most of the maintenance work (up to the C checks) by ourselves. In terms of fuel burn, it is not the most economical aircraft. But that’s okay – all in all it is a good aircraft.

Trade Air Fokker 100 cabin
©: Trade Air Fokker 100 Cabin – Trade Air

 

If you had to replace your Fokker 100s, what aircraft would you choose as a replacement?
Marko Cvijin: We would go for something like a Boeing 737 or an Airbus 320. The Embraer E-Jet is still too expensive and therefore its capital expenditure would be too high for our needs. All in all, we would not continue with another 100-seater aircraft.

Any plans to expand the fleet?
Marko Cvijin: We are currently looking at bigger aircraft with both greater capacity and range – possibly an Airbus A320. We are still in the early stages where we are just looking at what the market has to offer. We have not yet made a decision.

Charter operators like yours face seasonal demand, expiring contracts and various other uncertainties. What measures do you take to keep your costs down?
Marko Cvijin: Well our capital investment is relatively low so therefore, we aren’t burdened with heavy debts. In this business, one has to minimize one’s staff overheads while at the same time maintaining a flexible team capable of working under those circumstances. We’ve been able to achieve this by maintaining two types of staff: full-time employees and seasonal contract workers. Even though we don’t offer pay2fly contracts, finding good staff hasn’t proven difficult. In fact, all our cockpit crews are contract pilots from Spain, Italy etc.

In 2013, you had a wet-lease agreement with Ghana’s CiTylinK which collapsed resulting in you withdrawing your aircraft (an F100). Did you take any knocks as a result?
Sanja Ples: Oh no, disappointments are part of this business. The main thing is to get good securities and deposits from the client. As a rule of thumb, you always have to evaluate any risk when entering a new agreement – with start-ups in particular. So to answer your question, other than a terminated contract, we did not incur any losses due to CiTylinK’s demise. We were able to recover all the funds we were owed.

You recently won a tender from the Croatian government to operate Osijek to Zagreb flights. Were there any other bidders?
Sanja Ples: It´s actually two routes: Osijek – Zagreb and during the summer season, Rijeka-Split-Dubrovnik – Rijeka. While there were other interested parties, in the end, only ourselves and Croatia Airlines met the tender’s requirements and were eligible to operate the flights. We bid for five routes in total and won two of them.

©: Sun Adria operated by Trade Air – Trade Air

 

Have you encountered any difficulties entering the scheduled services market given that you have been a charter operator for the last 19 years?
Sanja Ples: We have been lucky in that the government has supported us by deciding to reopen this route (Osijek – Zagreb) which, until now, has been inoperative for 26 years. However, it is still a completely new project to us and of course there are going to be some difficulties. For example, one of the requirements [of the tender] was that we use an aircraft with at least 30 seats. We therefore had to wet-lease an Embraer 120 aircraft. Also the new sales and distribution system proved very challenging to us.

Which sales channels do you mainly use to sell tickets on those routes?
Sanja Ples: A proportion of the tickets will be sold through Croatia Airlines’ webpage while the rest will be sold through our own internet booking portal, once it is up and running. We plan to continue cooperating with Croatia Airlines so long as it draws in customers and benefits us financially.

As you mentioned, your flights are currently sold through Croatia Airlines’ site who also bid for the routes. Did Zagreb force them to sell your tickets?
Sanja Ples: No. Given their business interest in selling our tickets, we moved to conclude a marketing and code-share agreement in order to start the service as soon as possible. In all, we have a very good relationship with them and they are very important for the development of the Croatian aviation market as a whole. In fact, they are like a big mother to all of us. They have the people and the experience and are willing to develop the market. However, as already mentioned, we do plan to start our own sales in the next couple of months.

The route is a Public Service Obligation (PSO) maintained by the Croatian government. How long will the contract run for and are there any plans to extend this PSO to other routes?
Sanja Ples: At the moment, there are no plans to expand PSO routes in Croatia. The current contract is set to run until the end of the summer 2016.

©: Inflight on Trade Air’s Fokker 100 –  Trade Air

 

Looking to the future, where do you see Trade Air two years from now?
Marko Cvijin: I see Trade Air as a small airline, and we intend to maintain the status-quo. Over the next two years, we would like to gradually roll out our fleet renewal program though how far we get hinges on many different variables. In general, we would like to remain small – we do not have any plans to grow the fleet above five or six aircraft. We have adopted a conservative approach to these types of investments and do not want them take us into the red. The fact that we do not have any outstanding bank loans is still one of our biggest advantages. As already mentioned, it was this that saved us during the crises of recent years.

Thank you for the interview!

Trade Air - Airline Information

Trade Air – Aircraft and Fleet List

Trade Air – Recent News

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