September 2, 2014

Comair – South Africa’s Alternative

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Written by: Mark Lawrence
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For most people that fly to South or Southern Africa, the airline that usually is the one that stands out in booking or fare searches is South African Airways.  And why not, it is the largest airline in the area and probably the best known.  What doesn’t usually show up, unless you know to search for them specifically, are kulula.com and British Airways (operated by Comair), the very surprising alternatives for the region. During a recent trip to South Africa, I was able to find out a lot more about the organizations and spend time with Susan van der Ryst, Corporate Communications Manager for the Comair Group, and Shaun Pozyn, Marketing Manager for kulula.com and British Airways (operated by Comair) to discuss the past, present and future for both airlines.

comair-logoThe first thing to know about both of these airlines is that they both fall under the corporate umbrella of the company Comair Limited. Three South African Air Force colleagues serving in the Egyptian desert founded Comair Limited in 1943 as Commercial Air Services. The first charter service began between Johannesburg and Durban in 1946 with a Fairchild UC-78 aircraft. The first commercial service started on July 1, 1948 between Rand Airport in Johannesburg and Durban using a Cessna Model 195 carrying one pilot and four passengers. The airline continued to grow over the next few decades on several domestic routes. One of the company’s better-known services in South Africa was to airports in the Kruger National Park using Douglas DC-3 and Fokker 50 aircraft.  In 1992, Comair commenced its first jet service using the Boeing 737-200 and Fokker F-28 on the major domestic routes of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban as well as expanding an international service into neighboring countries like Zimbabwe and Botswana.

In 1996, the first deviation of using their own corporate name came when Comair became a franchise partner of British Airways and as part of the franchise, took the name of British Airways Comair which included the colors and livery of the airline.  British Airways colors flew on aircraft that had long been retired from their own main fleet, the Boeing 737-200, and on a type that had never been incorporated into the main fleet, the Boeing 727-200.  This also gave Comair access to the world-wide network of the mainline British Airways’ worldwide network and passengers could now use the benefits of the Executive Club frequent flyer program as well as access to the complete oneWorld alliance member airlines.  According to Shaun Pozyn, Comair is still one of only 2 remaining British Airways franchises in the world, the other being Sun Air of Scandinavia and will remain so for many years to come. The franchise, now known as British Airways (operated by Comair) utilizes a fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft, one -800 variant, the only Boeing 737-800 in the world to carry a British Airways logo and several -300 and -400 variants.   The future, according to both Pozyn and van der Ryst, will more than likely see some of the -400 variants leaving the fleet to be replaced by -800 variants from new orders that are due to arrive in 2015 and 2016 and a switch of some aircraft from the kulula.com fleet.

Kulula's famous "Flying 101" color scheme

Kulula’s famous “Flying 101” color scheme

The low fare kulula.com, Comair’s second airline, was founded in 2001.  Initially using Boeing 727-200 and McDonnell Douglas MD-82 aircraft, kulula.com joined the same South African domestic market as its sister airline and also was used on some of the international markets.   The basis for the low fare model used by kulula.com, according to van der Ryst was studies that Comair did of other lucrative low cost carrier airlines such as Ryanair and Southwest Airlines.  According to van der Ryst, kulula.com does not use the full low cost carrier model, but more of a low fare hybrid model based on the best aspects of other carriers incorporated with their own low fare model design.  Today, kulula.com operates a fleet of Boeing 737-800 aircraft with several more of the same variant on order.  One thing that kulula.com is well known for, both in South Africa and overseas is their special scheme aircraft.  The one that has been noticed worldwide is simply known in the company as Flying 101.  The design for this special scheme came from a 23 year-old designer in the company.  Pictures of this scheme as well as the This Way Up scheme have been circulated by email all over the world and when it arrives at airports within the region, it is very well recognized.

The future for kulula.com will focus on codeshare partnerships.  One of the major tasks that had to be completed in order to move into the code share market was implementing the international SABRE reservations system in 2012.  Prior to that, kulula.com had operated on its own reservations system, but management realized in order to allow them negotiations for code share partnerships, the move had to be made.  According to van der Ryst and Pozyn, while the planning and preparation for this move took a great deal of time, the actual implementation was done in a matter of a day and the integration was a very smooth process.  In May 2014, kulula.com signed their first code share partnership with Kenya Airlines, but as Pozyn was quick to point out, “Watch this space”, there are continuing negotiations with a number of other airlines.

An artist rendering of the 737 MAX in kulala.com colors (Courtesy: Comair Group)

An artist rendering of the 737 MAX in kulula.com colors. Comair has 8 of the new aircraft on order. (Courtesy: Comair Group)

In talking to van der Ryst and Pozyn about the company as a whole, they are very quick to point out that the reason for the 68 consecutive years of operational profit is having the right people and equipment and delivering the best service.  The company is commercially responsible to their shareholders who include employees, British Airways’ parent company IAG and other investors and their simple plan is to make money for their investors in order to promote re-investment in the company.  Comair Limited has also expanded with the creation in 2012 of the catering company Food Directions that provides all the catering for kulula.com and British Airways (operated by Comair) flights and again allows Comair to provide its best quality and service to its own airlines.  While both airlines continue to have their own branding, the synergy of the same manufacturer in both fleets allow the cockpit crew to fly for both and it is entirely possible for a crew to fly a kulula.com aircraftf to one destination followed by a British Airways (operated by Comair) flight next to another destination.

Safety is also something that is of paramount importance to Comair and its airlines.  While South African Airways Technical division carries out the majority of the technical work on the aircraft, audits are carried out locally by Comair and internationally by British Airways to maintain the highest level of safety in both airlines.

When it comes to the future of the fleets, Comair as a holding company will be the launch customer in Africa for the Boeing 737-8 MAX with 8 of the new aircraft on order.  When deliveries occur, the decision will be made as to which of the company’s two airlines will operate the aircraft.

One of my final questions to van der Ryst and Pozyn was what does the future hold for both British Airways (operated by Comair) and kulula.com and the answer was something that is not typical in the airline industry.  The majority of carrier’s worldwide will plan their future and incorporate new routes based on where they think their customers will need to fly.  Comair for its subsidiaries has a very different way of thinking and both van der Ryst and Pozyn summed it up very simply – the demand of our customers for destinations drives our future planning.  Competition in the Southern Africa region is very demanding with the government-owned South African Airways and their low cost carrier Mango.  Comair as a privately-owned entity, through kulula.com and British Airways (operated by Comair) want to maintain that string of 68 consecutive operating profit years going into the future.  But, they are going to do it based on what their customers want, not what they think the market will need.  A fine line, but it’s worked for 68 years, why should it not work well into the future?

Mark Lawrence is a NYCAviation producer and a south Florida-based aviation fanatic that has been around the industry since he was a small boy. As well as being an avid photographer, he also runs his own blog.

About the Author

Mark Lawrence
Mark Lawrence is a NYCAviation staff member and a south Florida-based aviation fanatic. He has been around the industry since he was a small boy. Mark can be reached at [email protected]



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