Airlink has been one of the star survivors of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is seizing opportunities to expand its network across Africa – and is rapidly expanding its fleet to accommodate the many new opportunities it has made.

AviaDev’s Jon Howell (JH) asks Airlink’s CEO Rodger Foster (RF) how he has met the challenges – and what the new normal is expected to be.

JH: Airlink is an airline that has done much in the past 25 years to keep sub-Saharan Africa connected, especially during the dark times over the past 18 months. It’s now almost two years since you terminated the franchise agreement with South African Airways and set up on your own code. I guess you were thinking “We’re poised for gigantic growth, with all guns blazing,” and then of course Covid came along and spoiled the party. How much did that impact change your strategy and what lessons have you learned as a result of the past 18 months or so?

RF: If anything, Covid presented us with the opportunity to implement our strategy. Bear in mind that our relationship with South African Airways lasted 25 years. When your business is dependent on a mother ship for that amount of time, you can imagine that to untangle that spaghetti and to reinstate independence is a mammoth task. So Covid and the lockdowns presented the opportunity for us to quietly get on with that implementation of our independence and that entailed setting up new systems and relationships. Bear in mind that Airlink is at the end of the day a network carrier and a regional airline. As a network airline we have interlining agreements and that required systems establishment and the implementation of those systems.

And then there are the commercial partnerships. The lockdowns and the ebb and flow of easing was mayhem for us. There were curfews, travel prohibitions, countries closing their borders, airport hours of operation changes and airport closures. Some airports still remain closed, even today, and there is one instance that a country’s borders remain closed. All of them caused multiple business disruptions but at the same time allowed us quiet time to get on with the implementation of the systems, in particular the inventory hosting systems. And then, of course, there are all of the absolutely essential bolt-on’s to the basic system, such as revenue optimisation and accounting systems and so on. I’m very pleased to say that Airlink has accomplished total independence from the relationship that we previously had with the mothership.

In August this year you entered a codeshare with Emirates. Tell us a bit more about the agreement and are you starting to see the benefits?

As a SADC airline we connect local business centres with other economic centres. However, we rely on commercial partnerships with airlines that provide long haul services from source markets such as North America, the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia, for us to gain access to those markets for the purposes of providing seamless connectivity to our customers. We operate a local and regional network of destinations all linked together by our hubs, we offer high frequency of services with availability to serve the markets’ requirements at the right timing. Our customers originating their travels from within our network have access to the world’s most popular destinations via the services of Airlink’s commercial partners, and reciprocally, customers originating their travels from source markets within the networks of our partners have access to all of Airlink’s destinations via the services of our partners in conjunction with our own. We are therefore proud of the codeshare relationships we’ve established with Emirates and United, as well as the interline relationships with many others, including: Lufthansa, British Airways, Qatar, Air France, KLM, Virgin, Delta, Ethiopian, TAAG, LAM, Cathay, Turkish and many others.

‘Airlink is standing alone, totally independent from the mothership’

Are we seeing the benefits of international travel being reactivated? We absolutely are. Just a month and a half  ago we had almost zero interlining traffic, other than for online interlining, in other words, on our services from Cape Town to Johannesburg and on to Bulawayo for example. But right now, interline traffic represents about 20% of our business, so we’ve definitely seen an uptick and the multiple relationships that we have firstly established and then nurtured are undoubtedly bearing dividends. We need to see this in context – long-haul travel is currently only at about 40% of its pre-Covid levels.

It’s a real sign of approval from both sides that those carriers obviously trust you and see the benefit of working with Airlink. And that’s part of your longevity as I think you have a longer tenure as CEO of an airline than any other. How important are the lessons you’ve learned over those many years of being in the industry? Has it cemented your ability to deal with what’s being thrown at you at the moment?

Its equipped me better than if I was a green stick to the game. I’ve been doing it now for almost 30 years, and you don’t always get it right. But you do learn from your experiences and that’s what, together with your own skill set, develops expertise over time. It boils down to firstly: the clarification of what you’re trying to do, and secondly: what you’re trying to be. You can’t be everything to all needs, but you can be something that, as long as you can define it clearly, you can get on with implementation.

‘long-haul travel is currently only at about 40% of its pre-Covid levels’

We are a regional airline and a standalone network system now, whereas before we were a component of a composite network system. I suppose in many ways we remain a composite. We are the local and regional component, and the composite is a collaboration between ourselves and our global partners. I think it’s that clarity of thought that has matured over time; we see that relationships and commercial partnerships and agreements are the future of our business, but in an agnostic way. We don’t want to be locked into one of the alliances on an exclusive basis. All three of the major global alliances and their key airline partners are relevant to our destinations as they collectively access the source markets to our destinations, and vice versa, where customers originating their travel from within our network would want to access their choice of global destinations through one of our partners who are members of one or the other of all three major global alliances.

We want to look at what’s best for our network system and our customers who need to get access to our destinations through our network in conjunction with what is best on every continent, and in every one of the source markets. Therefore we tied up a codeshare with Emirates which has the biggest global reach. We have also tied up a codeshare with United which is best placed to provide connectivity to the North America source markets via its hub in Newark – on to Johannesburg and then throughout our network, on a reciprocal basis.

Emirates are also alliance agnostic, as are many of the other partners that we engage with. Lufthansa and United are prominent members of the Star Alliance and in the case of our codeshare with United, this is on an alliance agnostic basis so we can also have a commercial relationship with Delta, which is part of Sky Team, and that opens up all the doors to us. It’s that experience that gives us the ability to adjudicate what is best for our business and specifically for our customers who need to travel from within our network system through our hubs and then access their end destinations everywhere in the world through our partnerships.

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