After spells with Lufthansa and Virgin Blue STEFAN PICHLER joined Kuwait’s Jazeera Airways as chief executive in June 2009. He spoke to LIZ O’REILLY about coming to the Middle East and expansion plans
With such an impressive track record, what brought you to Jazeera, a relatively small, though expanding, airline?
A couple of things. First, I always wanted to work in the Middle East, I love the culture, the people, the climate and it is pretty central in the world – so a good place for friends to come and visit. Second, Marwan Boodai and me have known each other for a while and I am a strong believer in the potential of Jazeera Airways in this part of the world. It is run as a professional, stock-listed company – which helps in day-to-day management. Third, life is a journey and it is great to add new experiences and it is also great to make a company grow, expand and be successful.
How are you finding working in the Middle East compared with Australia?
Well, the big difference is that you compete with a lot of government-funded airlines where profit or loss do not really influence their expansion plans. They might change the management or the board from time to time, but more or less keep up with their plans. And the next big difference, which ads to the challenge, is that this is a regulated market, no open skies in the Middle East, no competition watchdog, traditional distribution models. Another big difference is the communication culture – in Australia we had that Blackberry-driven ‘work-from-home’ culture. You go fishing and work on your emails, you are connected and productive…somehow.
Here it is more about the personal communication, more about interaction, more about respect, trust and friendship, which is a nice change.
And how are you finding working at Jazeera?
An exciting experience so far, we are now in the process to emerge from a start-up airline to a serious contender in the Middle East airspace, so we all have to grow and grow faster and more successful than others and look at the cost of labour and fuel in this part of the world.
How does Jazeera differ from other low-cost carriers?
We simply try to have a convenient product for our customers, with the leading on-time performance in the region, flying to the key business and leisure destinations and offering better value for money than most of our competitors, cheaper fares in economy and business class and a good service at the same time. The market here is not as sophisticated as for example the US, Europe or Australia, so price stimulation does not work the same way here. But costs can be lower.
You have significant branding experience - are you putting this to use in your role. What is being done to develop the Jazeera brand?
Jazeera is a very well known brand in this part of the world. Of course we try to build up intrinsic brand values, which will take time and we work hard to leverage the brand across different markets and commercial activities.
You have 29 new planes on order - this seems a massive expansion. Was this a step taken prior to your appointment or one which you have implemented?
Yes, this was the intial order triggered by our chairman Marwan Boodai – and of course part or the reason I am here, to make it work.
What is the delivery schedule and how will these new aircraft be utilised? Are there any new routes that you can announce or even suggest yet?
We’ve just recently had our 11th aircraft delivered with an order for 29 more over the next five years and we recently launched twice-daily flights to Abu Dhabi, as well as introducing our new business-class cabin. For 2010, the main focus will be on increasing efficiency and frequency of existing routes but we are currently also looking at new destinations.
Are they all narrow-body or regional jets or are you looking to make a move into the longer-haul market?
All 40 of our aircraft received or on order are A320s, which are very economically-efficient carriers. At that size of carrier, it is better to focus on one type of aircraft to keep complexity low, operating cost low, training and maintenance cost low.
It was recently reported that Jazeera is planning to buy an aviation firm in order to expand. Is that something you can talk about yet – what sort of acquisition are you looking at and what will Jazeera achieve from it?
We are actively pursuing opportunities in the aviation sector. This includes airlines but also companies along the aviation value chain – leasing, maintenance, and training companies. Jazeera Airways wants to expand into areas that will support our core business by reducing unit cost and increasing unit revenues.
It sounds as if expansion is on the cards all round. Where do you see Jazeera in a year/ five years?
Our business vision is to become the leading regional network carrier in the Middle East, so we compete primarily with Royal Jordanian, Gulf Air and Middle East Airlines for this spot.
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