With SAA at death's door - here's how FlySafair became the biggest domestic airline in six years

Business Insider SA
(Facebook, FlySafair)
(Facebook, FlySafair)
  • FlySafair became the country’s largest domestic airline within six years of launching. 
  • This despite a poor economic environment, and competitor SAA filing for bankruptcy. 
  • FlySafair CEO Elmar Conradie said the secret to its success is being able to do its own maintenance.
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Operating  16 aircrafts, 2,558 flights and with capacity to fly 457,950 passengers, FlySafair became the country’s largest domestic airline in December 2019 - six years after it was founded. 

This while state-owned South African Airlines (SAA) entered business rescue, after posting years of consecutive losses and receiving R16.5 billion in bailouts in ten years.

SAA cancelled 19 domestic and international flights on Tuesday due to low demand as part of a cost cutting measure as it tries to avoid liquidation.

Also read: South African taxpayers have paid R16.5bn to bail out SAA over the past decade — almost R1,000 per household

Speaking to Business Insider South Africa, FlySafair CEO Elmar Conradie said the airline's success lies in its ability to perform its own maintenance. 

FlySafair is a division of Safair, who ran an aircraft maintenance division long before FlySafair’s first flight in 2014. ASL Airlines Ireland holds a minority share in Safair's operations.  

“[At the time] it was a foregone conclusion that we would manage that part of the value-chain too,” Conradie said. 

“[Doing our own maintenance] is without a doubt a big factor. Having greater control over the value chain certainly assists, and accountability for having aircraft that are ready to go is also completely inhouse. ” 

FlySafair CEO Elmar Conradie (supplied)
FlySafair CEO Elmar Conradie (supplied)

Thanks to the fact that it can do its own maintenance, FlySafair became the most on-time airline in South Africa today.

When domestic competitors such British Airways and had to cancel flights due to a strike at SAA Technical near the end of 2019, FlySafair's maintenance division meant it could continue undisturbed.

Also read: Kulula, BA planes may have to be serviced overseas if strike drags on - FlySafair says it can't help

FlySafair entered the commercial aviation market because it thought 'fares were quite high' 

Conradie said when Safair entered the commercial aviation sector in 2014 with FlySafair, it was looking for growth opportunities. 

At the time, it already operated aircraft maintenance and leased aircrafts, and even crewed and operated aircraft for airlines such as SAA, Kulula, Mango, Ryanair and Air Namibia for a number years. 

“Chances are that if you’d been a semi-regular flyer in South Africa since the 80s, you probably would have flown on a Safair aircraft, with Safair crew long before FlySafair launched – it simply would have been painted a different colour,” Conradie said. 

 “[We were] looking at the market and we saw that fares were quite high, which signalled that there was possibly space for an increase in the market supply.” 

“We felt that an operator that could come in with a very practical, slick, punctual service would be likely to gain consumer favour.” 

The Springboks' rugby team on a FlySafair plane. F
The Springboks' rugby team on a FlySafair plane. FlySafair is the rugby team's official carrier. (Instagram, @flysafairza)

Conradie, who joined Safair 15 years ago before becoming Chief Executive Officer of Safair in March 2015, said the airline has been able to expand despite the country’s poor economic environment, growing from 180 employees in 2014 to 1,100 employees today.

“The conventional wisdom is that price-sensitive consumers are supposed to substitute higher priced full service and business class offerings for low cost options in tighter times.” 

“So this is the strength that we’ll play to: just ensuring that we keep those costs as low as possible to accommodate a price that the market will accept.” 

How FlySafair plans to expand in the future, and compete with the likes of British Airways 

He said he hoped that the situation at SAA stabilises to create certainty in the minds of the flying public, and believes the airline is on the “right track” with the business rescue procedures. 

Looking towards the future, Conradie said he hopes to expand FlySafair’s capacity in 2020, but no new destinations are currently on the cards. 

He said FlySafair is also not considering expanding its offering to compete with, for example, British Airways for business class passengers. 

The airline has added additional add-ons for consumers such as meals, priority boarding and extra legroom which makes its offering already appealing to wealthier consumers, Conradie said. 

“In truth we believe that our product is appealing to a more affluent market as it exists today,” he said. 

* This article has been corrected to reflect that ASL Airlines Ireland is not a majority shareholder of Flysafair or Safair. 

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