35 years and counting of ‘Flying the Creole Spirit’

AIR SEYCHELLES AT 35

(Posted 11th November 2013)

Air Seychelles has now turned 35 years, a major accomplishment in this day and age of aviation, where small airlines have disappeared at an alarming rate, either closed down altogether or taken over with a complete loss of their identity in the process.

When in 1978 the government of the Seychelles decided it needed an own national airline and merged Air Mahe and Inter Islands Airways, Seychelles Airlines was formed to connect the archipelago to the world. Eventually the name changed to Air Seychelles but it was that strategic decision which saw the archipelago connected under their own flag to the world.

For 33 of those years Air Seychelles stood on its own feet, flying to a range of destinations in Africa, across the Indian Ocean islands, to India, Asia and Europe, and through a regular charter operation out of the UK even as far as the Falkland Islands.

However, the global financial crisis and subsequent fallout across the world economy saw the financial returns in 2009/10 and 2010/11 take a turn to the worse and after the retirement of long serving CEO Capt. David Savy came a shortlived period of downsizing the airline to nearly non existence before, seeing the writing on the wall, President James Alix Michel, through his personal friendship with the ruler of Abu Dhabi, accomplished a fundamental change for the airline.

In February 2012 Etihad, Abu Dhabi’s national airline, acquired a 40 percent stake for which it paid 20 million US Dollars to the Seychelles’ government and injected a further 20 million US Dollars as working capital, while at the same time taking over the management of Air Seychelles.

Initially on collision course with many in the tourism private sector, mostly due to a lack of engaging the archipelago’s tourism industry in a comprehensive dialogue to address their fears over the loss of nonstop flights from Paris, London, Milan, Rome and Mumbai and the sharp rise of fare levels between Mahe and Praslin, this changed when the at times stinging criticism reached the ears of CEO Cramer Ball and had him launch a series of direct consultative meetings with the country’s tourism gurus and general business leadership. As a result there was greater appreciation of the need for change and the need to channel traffic from Europe via the main hub of Etihad in Abu Dhabi, from where Air Seychelles was carrying passengers under a code share arrangement with Etihad to Mahe and on to Mauritius and Johannesburg, and vice versa. Not all were in favour either when news broke that the planned route to Beijing would be shifted to Hong Kong and again operate via Abu Dhabi. Air Seychelles had during that first year of cooperating with Etihad disposed of their ageing B767 fleet and acquired two Airbus A330-300 models, which allowed for streamlined crew training at the Etihad Aviation Academy in Abu Dhabi, as well as take advantage of maintenance facilities there, which reduced the cost of keeping the fleet in the air dramatically compared to the B767 days.

Few close observers were therefore surprised when the airline made a million dollar profit in the first full year after the ‘marriage’ with Etihad and during a recent visit to the islands it was confirmed that by and large the private sector had now bought into the concept of routing traffic to the archipelago via Abu Dhabi, to let the economics of scale come to make an impact on the airline’s passenger uplift and financial performance. Only a few days ago did Air Seychelles announce a rise of 91 percent in passenger numbers, quarter on quarter compared with last year and a second year of profits is now obvious for everyone to see and any remaining critics have remained shtumm in the face of economic success and rising passenger numbers coming under these arrangements to the islands.

In another landmark step did Air Seychelles two weeks ago announce the purchase of 3 DHC 6 – 400 state of the art turboprops aircraft, aimed to replace the ageing DHC 6 – 300 types which have flown across the archipelago for between 20 and 30 years already. With over 1.000 flights a month between 4 of these 19 seater STOL aircraft, on scheduled services to Praslin and to other islands on coach and charter services, it is clear that a replacement will benefit Air Seychelles with reduced fuel consumption, state of the art automated engineering reports from the aircraft straight to the base and reduced maintenance cost, which in the case of older ageing aircraft tends to be substantially greater than for new birds.

Since the airline was formed in 1978 it flew a range of different aircraft, ranging from the venerable B707 over the B727, B737-700, the B757 and finally the B767 but also for a while a DC 10 and an Airbus A300 on lease from other airlines. Today Air Seychelles operates two Airbus A330-200, one Airbus A320 wetleased from Etihad on the route to Mauritius (3 times a week) and 4 DHC 6 turboprops, one new – 400 and three older – 300 models.

Flying the Creole Spirit’ will no doubt be with us for a very long time to come and going by the words of CEO Cramer Ball, the airline will continue to evaluate new destinations, perhaps on the East African mainland or further down South, to the Middle East, Europe and Asia, though many of those routes are now already covered under code share arrangements with other partner airlines of Etihad like Air Berlin or more recently with South African Airways, which allows the Air Seychelles flight number to go way beyond where the airline’s own planes now fly. Happy Birthday and Happy Landings for crews and passengers in the years ahead.

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