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The Sunday Read: Safair CEO on doing 'good, honest business'

Jan 20 2019 09:32
Carin Smith

South African aviation company Safair has been around for 53 years.

Initially it operated behind the scenes: leasing out aircraft along with its maintenance, crew and insurance to other airlines in both the cargo and passenger space. 

CEO Elmar Conradie has been with the company since 2005, when he started as chief financial officer, before taking over the reins as CEO in 2015.

Conradie is a qualified chartered accountant and certified information systems auditor, with more than 20 years' of finance experience and 14 years of aviation experience.

Asked why he chose to join Safair, he says he saw a company "that wanted to do good, honest business, by principles that aligned with my own".
Aircraft maintenance has always been a big part of Safair's business. Currently, it operates long-term contracts for a number of humanitarian aid organisations in Africa, for instance.

In 2013 the company decided to launch its own commercial airline - low-cost airline Flysafair.

"We've always leased to other airlines, and having seen so many low-cost carriers fail in South Africa, we realised that we had the knowledge and experience to make it work. We successfully launched FlySafair in October 2014," he says.

Airlines that need an edge

In the beginning, FlySafair operated just two aircraft, mainly flying between Johannesburg and Cape Town. By December that year, its fleet had grown to four aircraft. Currently, it has 15 Boeing 737s, performing on average 2 200 flights per month.

As for the current state of SA's aviation industry, Conradie says there has been little growth over the past three years in terms of the number of passengers travelling - mainly due to SA's current low economic growth. He admits the low-cost airline sector in SA is very competitive - to the benefit of consumers.

"As an airline, we need to be at the top of our game, ensuring that costs are controlled, operations are flawless, passengers are happy and that there's enough meaningful innovation in the pipeline to give us an edge tomorrow," he says.

"Our strategy is to keep our costs low and, therefore our fares; to be punctual and to make the journey as hassle-free as possible. Our focus has been - and will remain - on what our customers want."

He says FlySafair is going ahead full steam with expansion plans.

Towards open skies

"We still believe there are lots of opportunities within our borders, but we've been looking at expanding into the regional market for some time and I think it's something that all airlines in Africa are looking at as well," he says.

"But I think one major issue is the lack of open skies agreements (on the continent), which curtails where you can fly to. You can't just pick a destination and start flying there – you need to be allocated traffic rights."

He emphasises that one needs to pick your market carefully and establish where there is actually enough demand.

"A lot of regional flying works on business class seats and two- and three-class configurations. A low-cost model, on the other hand, requires a route where there is high demand to generate the necessary minimum of 70% to 80% load factors," he says.

"Also, in Southern Africa you have to pay more attention to distribution as there are far fewer internet users than, say, in Europe."

flysafair  |  aviation  |  airlines


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