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Domestic flights continue operations at Level 3

The new regulation allows only for limited national flights; for FlySafair to operate is ‘frankly, a bit of a gamble’: chief marketing officer Kirby Gordon.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Following Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula’s announcement toward the end of May that limited domestic air transportation could take place in Level 3 of the nationwide lockdown, FlySafair has decided to take to the skies. But it’s not a straightforward process. If everything goes to plan, the airliner is hoping to resume limited flights by the middle of June. Well, to tell us more, I’m joined on the line by Kirby Gordon, a chief marketing officer at FlySafair.

Thank you so much for joining us, Kirby. What were some of the impacts and challenges that you guys faced when the nationwide lockdown was called, and airliners like yourselves just had to suddenly stop service?

KIRBY GORDON: Good evening. Yes, absolutely. The reality is that the impact was absolute. We just couldn’t fly at all, which meant that all of our aircraft were grounded and there was absolutely no revenue coming into the business. Yet, unfortunately [we still had] costs on a monthly basis, which were quite unavoidable. It was pretty much as bad as it can get.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Absolutely. Just in terms of staff, what has happened in that regard? Do you still have the same staff complement, or have you had to make adjustments over the period?

KIRBY GORDON: Yes. We employ about 1 200 people directly, and we are fortunate enough, in fact, very fortunate in the gambit of airlines, that we didn’t have to initiate any Section 189 processes. So we haven’t had any retrenchments. We still have our full complement of staff. We’ve obviously negotiated through the process with our team and everybody has made pretty severe sacrifices. But we’ve done so with the view that everyone can hold on to their jobs, and that we’ll all get back to work as soon as we possibly can – which fortunately now is going to be this month.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. You’ve now been given the go-ahead to run a limited service across the country. So what’s the origination and destination plan? In other words, where are you going to be flying to and flying from?

KIRBY GORDON: Well, the limitations that have been placed in terms of the regulations at this stage indicate that we can only fly between what we call in aviation the Golden Triangle, which is of course between Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Johannesburg does include Lanseria, fortunately. So we will be operating on all of those routes. So from Johannesburg to Cape Town, from OR Tambo and from Lanseria. You’ll see Cape Town and Durban, then you’ll see Johannesburg to Durban from both OR Tambo and Lanseria as well.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Now, getting the permission to go ahead doesn’t just mean that your pilots get their keys and start flying. There are quite a number of hoops through which you have to jump in order to be able to fly. Just take us through some of the administrative hassles that you’re going to have to go through before you can fly come mid-June, if indeed you manage to hit that target.

KIRBY GORDON: There are a number of considerations that are in place. Fortunately, we’ve been quite proactive in terms of addressing them. We’ve only heard the details in terms of what the regulatory requirements would be on Saturday with the rest of the nation, but we had already prepared some schedules that were based on what we anticipated would happen. Fortunately, those schedules were approved by both Acsa and the air-traffic navigation services, so those flights have been listed for sale on our website already. So we’re good to go from that perspective.

And there are a number of other considerations that of course relate more specifically to readiness with regard to Covid-19, and Covid-19 transmission and prevention. And those were, again, a number of measures where we were quite proactive in terms of just crafting the kind of journey that we believed would be the best one for our customers, before even understanding what the regulations were.

Fortunately, once they were published,

I think we hit every nail on the head and then some. So we’re quite comfortable that we’ve put a number of measures in place to make sure that flying is incredibly safe.

NOMPU SIZIBA: I like that – “and then some”. So how are you guys going to make air travel safe for passengers going forward?

KIRBY GORDON: Well, the whole experience of air travel is going to be quite different. And I think it’s valuable for anyone considering flying in the next little while to just consider it because it’s not just the experience on the aircraft that going to change a bit. It’ll also be your experience with leaving through the airport.

So in these early phases what will happen is that there will be strict restrictions of access to the actual terminal. So the authorities will be outside the terminal, and they’ll be screening individuals before they’re even allowed into the terminals themselves. Only passengers will be allowed in the to greet or anyone dropping or meeting anybody. So it’ll be passengers only, screenings at the door, health screenings, temperature screening. You must wear a mask to access. You must have your permit, which is that you’re flying for business purposes.

On the aircraft itself, lots of sanitation measures, masks, social distancing – everything that you would expect.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You know, there are many of us who take chances when we’re doing local travel: “Ah, you know what, OR Tambo is just around the corner,” and we get there just an hour before departure. Based on what you’re saying, I take it that check-in time would be far earlier than the scheduled take-off.

KIRBY GORDON: We’re actually keeping our limits to be the same as what they usually are. So check-in will close 40 minutes before a flight departs so that we can manage the boarding processes.

But you’re absolutely right in identifying that passengers are well advised to arrive at a little bit earlier. And this has got more to do with the process of actually accessing the terminal. We are anticipating a degree of congestion in that regard. And, in fact, Acsa has put out advice to say that passengers should arrive at least two hours before their flights depart, just to ensure that they’re not held up outside the terminal, desperately trying to get in to board their flights.

NOMPU SIZIBA: From your perspective, does flying on a limited basis, as per the government regulations, make economic sense? And if it doesn’t, why opt to fly now?

KIRBY GORDON:  Right. It is, frankly, a bit of a gamble. The reality is that we are a 17-aircraft operation, and we’re flying at the moment with about four or five aircraft. So we’ve got a 17-aircraft operation that’s operating on the basis of four.

So it’s very difficult for us to even dream of making a profit.

But the hope is to become at least somewhat cash-positive on those flights, so that we can at least get those aircraft to pay for their own leases. That would put us in a better position than what we would be with them just standing on the ground.

But of course the gamble is: can you make up your operating costs and then a little bit more to be able to actually contribute toward those leases, to be in a better position than you were before.  And therein lies the great unknown at this stage. We’ve got a constraint capacity, we’ve got additional constraints in terms of the routes that we can fly, and who is actually eligible to fly. So we’re sitting with bated breath at the moment. Tickets are on sale. We are watching the sales volumes and we’re just hoping like anything that we can fill enough of those seats to make sense come the 15th.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. You’re the marketing officer – that’s actually going to be quite tough. How are you going to determine if the person who’s trying to purchase a ticket is the right person?

KIRBY GORDON: We have to be quite clear on that process, and obviously that’s the law as well.

But in terms of the actual process of purchasing, the fact that you need your permit, that declaration that you are travelling for work purposes is an essential element of the entire transaction. So, without that piece of paper, you really would not be able to gain access to the terminal at all. That’s really, really key.

We’ve actually put together a little tool on our website. It’s an online wizard that users can use to make application for those tools. You input your information and those of the institution that you work for. It spits out the little work permit, which you then need to get signed by the relevant division of your organisation. And you’ll be good to go.

NOMPU SIZIBA: From where you stand, when must you absolutely be in a position to run a full service before your viability as an airliner starts to hang in the balance?

KIRBY GORDON: That’s a question that is sort of “How long is a piece of a string…… ”. And then of course how deep would it have to go in terms of what financing we would be able to secure to maintain a lifeline for a little bit longer. At this stage we’re in quite a fortuitous position. We are very glad that we are flying now. We possibly could have held on for a few more months if we had needed to under a lockdown circumstance. But of course the big risk comes in now. If we start operating and we don’t cover our own costs, we have the potential to burn a lot more money than we would have, just being hunkered down.

NOMPU SIZIBA: And just coming back to the whole Covid-19 issue, I did see something in the regulations that there must be a spot for suspicious customers. What’s going to happen in that regard if someone is on the aircraft and you suspect that they may have Covid-19 symptoms? How are you going to deal with that?

KIRBY GORDON: Well, domestically we are in a fortunate position in that the longest flight that we have is about two hours. So, given that there is such rigorous screening procedures at the airport terminal beforehand, it’s relatively unlikely that we’ll get somebody who will suddenly fall pretty ill during the course of the flight or during the course of a journey. Those are very, very significant considerations, obviously, on the long-haul environment.

But the regulations do insist that all airlines keep the back row of seats open for any suspicious cases. So obviously, as part of our trip preparedness, our crew are trained in terms of what to look out for, and they also know what procedures to follow should somebody be deemed or be feeling ill. We’ll have all of the temperature-screening equipment and whatnot on board, and then that individual would be escorted away from other passengers into those empty seats in the back row for the rest of the trip.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Given that you are going to be running a limited service, are you going to be utilising all of your staff? Are they going to be on rotation? How is it going to work?

KIRBY GORDON: We will be utilising all of our staff. It’s part of our agreement that we made with the organisation. Obviously everybody is working reduced hours and with reduced pay as a result. So everyone will be working in rotation, but obviously our shifts will be a lot shorter and a lot less.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Kirby, pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for your time.

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Love him or hate him, there’s no arguing with O’Leary of Ryanair when he said that (1) physical distancing on an aircraft is impossible and (2) airlines simply cannot fly profitably with seats blocked for ineffective distancing measures. The necessary load factors cannot be achieved, which would mean fares would need to rise to prohibitive levels just to break even. The arbitrary distancing measures proposed in some places, such as blocking the middle seats in each row – to what? Create a “safety gap” of 65cm? – achieve nothing and make air travel commercially unviable. Safair are gambling with a loaded die here…

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