Q&A: Planning for the future

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The current political uncertainty in South Africa is propelling companies like Comair Flight Services, an air charter provider, to expand outside of the country. Justin Reeves, CEO of CFS, provides more insight into the state of the private aviation industry.

Q: What are your thoughts on the overall state of the African private aviation industry?

A: Africa is probably presenting more opportunities than South Africa itself. CFS is always looking at growth opportunities and Africa presents us with the most exciting prospects at the moment. SA, on the other hand, seems to have reached a plateau that will likely take years to show the opportunities for substantial growth again. That is if the South African government can give both local and foreign investors certainty on the future of our economy, which is proving rather difficult with no clear plan on what will happen with the land rights issues.

Q: What’s your view on fractional ownership in the private aviation space?

A: I find the concept very interesting. It will continue to change the way we view ownership. As the younger generations start to accumulate wealth they will begin to have a larger impact on aircraft sales trends. As with full ownership however, fractional ownership does still require confidence in property rights.

Q: Does CFS have a mobile booking tool?

A: Not yet. Our management team embraces and adopts new technologies very easily, so we’re constantly assessing new products to see what could make us more efficient and responsive, but private charter can have very complex costing models, making it challenging to automate. We’ve not yet found an off-the-shelf solution that meets all our requirements and the high costs of developing customised software isn’t viable for us at this time.

Q: How is CFS, generally, using technology to better serve its clients?

A: All our flights have live satellite tracking devices on board which gives real-time information. We have software to optimise fuel spend to save on fuel costs. We have also integrated a new app with our flight management system which gives us instant messaging, conference calls, direct messaging and more, specifically relating to each flight.

Q: Do you have a view on how millennial travellers might approach private aviation in the future, and do you have any existing insight into their travel habits?

A: In private aviation we’ve had the luxury of seeing generational trends forming long before it starts affecting our industry, because private charter has historically been reserved for older generations that have accumulated wealth. However, if you accept that millennials are more interested in the experience than ownership, then we get back to the possibilities of shared or fractional ownership.

Q: What’s currently popular, in terms of aircraft in demand for different groups sizes?

A: We’ve recently noted a significant increase in jet flights compared to turboprops. Jets are typically used by corporates for business purposes and longer distances, whereas turboprops are more often used for leisure purposes. More clients are requesting jets for leisure purposes and staying in resorts and lodges nearer to large international airports.

Q: Do you have a loyalty programme and do you see value in offering this to customers?

A: This question comes at an interesting time, as we’ve recently started discussing how we can reward our clients for their loyal support in a way that will truly appeal to them. We need to think out the box as there doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all solution to a loyalty/rewards programme for air needs.

Q: In terms of African travel ‘hotspots’, where are you seeing the most activity?

A: This is influenced by the type of aircraft fleet in operation. Each category of aircraft is suited to a flight profile, so our very diverse fleet offer a wide range of options. Our turboprops are especially busy this time of year moving passengers on safari between private game lodges. We have seen a significant increase in flights to Zimbabwe since the recent political changes there; Victoria Falls has been added to many leisure itineraries.

Q: Are you seeing any interesting requests, in terms of on board products?

A: The most noteworthy change is the number of special catering requirements. Previously there wasn’t nearly as much information freely available about what we eat, so we see some lengthy requests for groups about who does and doesn’t eat gluten, nuts, dairy, meat, fish, sugar, fruit and so on.

Q: What impact has the rise in fuel price had on your business?

A: This has naturally not been good for business, especially not our local clients. For our foreign clients the depreciation of the Rand has in some cases reduced the cost of chartering in SA and this has to some extent helped to offset the losses in the local market. We’ve become used to volatile oil prices and exchange rates and have learned a few tricks over the years on how to deal with it. But ultimately rising costs will always affect profits negatively in some way.

Q: Where would you like to see CFS in 10 years’ time?

A: As a shareholder, hopefully CFS will be one of my great investments and no longer a job. Comair is a very strong brand and I see the CFS group expanding into new territories in the not too distant future. C

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