NOMPU SIZIBA: A new commercial airliner is set to take off into South Africa’s sky in December. My colleague Ryk van Niekerk caught up with the brave entrepreneur, who is said to do this at a time of extreme uncertainty in the aviation industry.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: South Africa is set to see a brand new airline take off in December, and the man behind this new venture is Gidon Novick. He is no stranger to the airline business, as he was an executive at Comair for more than a decade, and he launched Kulula.com. He is also the man behind the ‘Slow lounge’ in South Africa. After his stint at Comair, he became the CEO of Vitality at Discovery, and he’s sort of a venture capitalist. Gidon is on the line.
Gidon, thank you so much for joining me. Why on earth would you venture back into the airline industry? Virtually all our airlines are in business rescue or liquidation. Obviously you think it’s an opportunity, but doesn’t it really show how difficult it is to run an airline in South Africa?
GIDON NOVICK: Howzit, Ryk. It is a difficult industry for sure. It’s gone through a ridiculously difficult time, but I think that does create opportunity. Air travel is something that people will continue to do. I think this lockdown has taught many of us that there’s no real replacement for human contact. Whether it’s family and friends or a business context, people want to be with people, and people want to explore other places and therefore travel will remain. And, given that the industry is in a mess, and given that there are so many aircraft available in the world, and with all the kinds of inputs that one needs to start up an airline, it does feel like a good time.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Tell us about this new airline. What do you have up your sleeve?
GIDON NOVICK: We want to get started over the holiday season, which is coming up soon. Given that South Africans are unlikely to be travelling overseas, certainly not in big numbers for the foreseeable future, there is going to be, I think, quite strong demand domestically.
The airline will start off flying between Johannesburg and Cape Town, which is actually one of the busiest routes in the world, which some people find strange, but it’s about the 11th or 12th busiest air route in the world. So that’s a logical place to start.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: How many planes do you foresee being in the fleet?
GIDON NOVICK: Between two and three to start. So that will give us a decent frequency between the two cities to be able to cater not only for leisure travellers, but also business travellers, and business travel is coming back. People are wanting to reconnect with their business partners and suppliers and customers. So that’s an important market as well.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Your partner in this this venture is Global Aviation. This company has been around for nearly two decades in the South African airline industry, and predominantly leases airplanes to airlines. They also do some charted flights, but they’re not that well known. Tell us about Global Aviation.
GIDON NOVICK: They’re an incredible operator and many people may not have heard of them, because their primary model has been a B2B model, in that they support other airlines in terms of the supplementary capacity that they need. They also do contract work and charter work. They’re an exceptional operator.
So it’s a really good partner, because they have all the infrastructure and all the regulatory issues that an airline needs. And our focus as a JV partner with them is on the commercial side of the of the industry. I think one of the opportunities is that, because airlines are such complex businesses, often the customer gets forgotten about. There are so many other things to worry about – the financial side, the operational side, the technology side of the business – that the poor customer gets left out of the picture. And we certainly want to put the customer right in the middle of our thinking in terms of how we build the airline.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: How much money will you invest in this airline? I assume it’s not a cheap thing to get off the ground.
GIDON NOVICK: It’s never a cheap thing to start an airline. But because of the current environment, the capital requirements are dramatically less than what they would have been, let’s say, a year ago, given that there are so many aircraft available, given that there’s infrastructure available, given that a lot of the skills that one needs to bring into an airline are available.
A lot of people are looking for opportunities, very high-quality talented people. So our aim is to bring those people on board, which we are busy doing, as well as bringing people from outside the industry. A couple of our key people on the project have come over from Uber, and Uber really just has an incredible track record in history and brand, and an understanding of technology and customers. So we are really trying to get very fresh thinking into the mix.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: That’s a very interesting marriage, Uber and an airline. Is it just the innovative thinking, or are there some similarities in the business model?
GIDON NOVICK: I think there are similarities. They are both consumer businesses, they are both logistics businesses. They are both businesses that rely extensively on technology. So there is a lot. And I think the thinking specifically around everything that Uber does is so customer-centric; it has to be. People need to know exactly where they are in the process. A lot of the anxiety in their world around getting a taxi has been taken away and they’ve addressed it through the clever use of technology. So we want to do the same in this airline.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Gidon, one of the most interesting things you have done is ask the public to name the airline. Now I know the news programme Carte Blanche did the same – they also got their name from the public. What has the response been so far?
GIDON NOVICK: It’s been overwhelming, to be quite honest. We’ve had over 25 000 people suggest the name, which is incredible. There are some very, very interesting names. There are some very strange names and it’s been amazing. We are still waiting for some more to come through, and we get to make a decision on the name in the next week or so. It’s quite amazing how creative people are, how engaged they are, how willing they are to take part in something. I think it’s important to build a brand around the people that it aims to serve. And that’s really what we’re going to focus on.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: A very interesting approach. The winner will be able to fly for free for a year but I assume there’s a lot of fine print involved. Can a person, for example, fly every day?
GIDON NOVICK: Well, I think they’ll get quite tired flying every single day. So I’m hoping for their sake and for ours that they choose not to – but theoretically they could. They’ll have a free travel pass for a year. So they’ll just need to let us know, hopefully using technology, when they want to fly, and they will be up and down as much as they would like.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Thanks, Gidon. Good luck with this new venture – it really sounds exciting. That was Gidon Novick, the man behind a new airline that will take off in December.