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Mon 15 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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Fruits of labour

Safi Airways has faced many challenges since its start-up in 2006, but its CCO says the rewards are immeasurable.

Fruits of labour
Fruits of labour
Safi Airways plans to buy more aircraft to increase its business class offering.

Safi Airways has faced many challenges since its start-up in 2006, but its CCO says the rewards are immeasurable.

Claus Fischer has taken just four days holiday during the past fourteen months; but the hard work and long hours have been worth it. As chief commercial officer of Safi Airways - Afghanistan's first and only airline to achieve ICAO compliancy - Fischer has watched the business grow to become a competitive and respected airline.

Speaking to Aviation Business on the eve of his first anniversary since joining the airline in February 2009, Fischer is clearly proud of the airline's achievements so far, and rightfully so.

A number of interline agreements connecting Safi's home base in Kabul to four key hubs - Frankfurt, Dubai, Kuwait and Doha - has resulted in the airline publishing ‘through fares' via its GDS providers, Sabre, Amadeus, Galileo and Worldspan; and with an estimated quarter of the airline's turnover being generated through its distribution providers, the airline remains optimistic for strong ‘one-fare' ticket sales figures in 2010.

It is this clever selection of transfer points that is giving Afghan families and the estimated 400,000 expats living in or close to Kabul, the ability to travel between the country's capital and the US, for example, for just US$1300.

"Our interlining agreements with a number of airlines gives our passengers the option to fly almost anywhere with just one point of transfer at a reasonable cost," Fischer explains.

"Most people flying from Afghanistan used to travel on UN charters, but those don't exist anymore, because of Safi, and this has only been possible due to our emphasis on flight safety."

The airline's strong focus on flight safety remains resolute. Kabul is an interesting market, but for most airlines it is a safety risk, explains Fischer.

"We knew that to have a future in the business we had to operate to Western standards, so this is why we went through all the ICAO compliancy, GDS interlining and most recently, the IOSA audit."

Fischer adds that with its flight safety credentials achieved, the airline has had more time to focus on developing a strategic network and currently, the airline's busiest Middle East route is Dubai.

"Dubai traffic is getting better by the day. In December we had the 767 on the route, daily, and then the A340 went onto the route for three to four weeks and we flew with 200 passengers on the midday service, it was extraordinary."

In fact, two frequencies a day in January saw the airline's Dubai flights maintain a load factor of 60%, with more demand in business class than Safi had available."I desperately need more business class seats on my planes, which on the 767 does not work. The A340 will be deployed on the Frankfurt route and the 737s are ageing, so we are looking at putting an A320 into the fleet with a different configuration. Ideally I would like 12 seats in business class and 140 in economy."

So how has Safi managed to retain its business class passengers? Well, a 96% on-time performance rating helps, but it is the attention to detail that counts.

"If you find people who want to fly to Kabul they are often leaving their families and risking their lives, so they ask for special treatment. Also, through interlining we offer through-fares, which lower the yields, so it is getting cheaper to fly business class to Kabul."

Fischer estimates that 25% of the airline's turnover is generated from the GDS, with a 15-20% increase in sales from when the system launched last year. But the airline's expansion has not been easy. With Afghanistan's poor airport infrastructure, Safi's growth plans have been curbed.

"A high number of military and civilian movements at Kabul airport have to take place during daylight hours - there is no lighting or reliable IFR available - forcing the airline to restrict its flight times."

The carrier would like to resume its Dubai-Kandahar service, for example, "but with limited operating times from Kabul and just four aircraft, I can't right now." With the tumultuous elections done and dusted however, and a new government installed, Fischer will be hoping that the country's finance minister will set an agenda for change.

Not only that, Safi flew to Abu Dhabi and Sharjah twice a week for three months last year, but both services have since been cancelled. While Sharjah will not be reinstated - it was too far removed from Safi's business model - Fischer still hopes that flights between Kabul and Abu Dhabi will resume.

"Sometimes in the Middle East it is a learning process. It seems first you start the route, then you open the commercial talks ... we plan to reinstate the route, but this will not be possible without buying new aircraft."

In addition, the plan to start a route to London has now been scrapped in favour of frequency increases. Flights to Frankfurt will jump to five a week. Three flights a week from Kabul-Delhi will begin in the spring, "with a view to flying the route five times a week," and passenger and cargo services to Beijing are also in the pipeline.  Not only do these frequency increases make better financial sense, says Fischer, they allow the airline to concentrate on other ambitious projects.

"We have plans to build an aviation college, possibly in Masr-e-Sharif where the German government is funding an infrastructure project. Through this we hope to tackle the challenge of finding educated and well-trained people to work in Afghanistan's aviation industry."

The vision is to train pilots, maintenance and ground staff and pay them a deserving wage. This, Fischer says, would be a starting point for industry growth.

Meanwhile, the ongoing task of reuniting families is keeping Safi's commercial guy more than busy. "Last year we put so much effort in and now we are seeing the results of our labour. We feel we are making a big change for people in Afghanistan."


Safi fast facts

Airline was founded in 2006

Headquarters are in Kabul, Afghanistan

Safi operates a fleet of Boeing 737-300 and 767-200ER

It is the only Afghan airline to be ICAO compliant

Safi currently flies to Frankfurt, Dubai, Kuwait and Doha

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