Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the man behind Pakistan’s largest private airline Air Blue, was a born aviator. The son of an air force pilot, Abbasi received his flying license before his driver’s license – at the age of 17. Abbasi served as the federal minister for aviation for a while and also as the chairman of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Today, he is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Air Blue.
Talking about the airline’s operational strategy, Abbasi, who was visiting Karachi briefly, revealed that the separation of the airline’s higher management from its operational staff has enabled the airline to function more efficiently. The separation has stopped management interference in day to day activities, reducing the amount of time spent for all operational tasks. “The operations personnel should have enough capacity and delegated authority to solve their own problems without involving the higher management unless absolutely necessary,” explained Abbasi.
The airline prides itself in working in a paperless environment, said the COO. In a country where the concept of paperless environment is still new, Air Blue has demonstrated that doing the same isn’t quite the Herculean task that it is made out to be. “We believe in using technology to our advantage and that is the secret to our success,” he said. “I really don’t have to come to the office myself because we have installed a web-based MIS system that provides real-time information on every aspect of our operations.”
The airline has been in direct competition with the state-run airline, PIA, but given its success, Air Blue expanded its network from domestic destinations to Dubai (2005) and Manchester (2007). Future expansion plans, said Abbasi, include Bahrain, Birmingham, Jeddah, Kuala Lumpur, Copenhagen, Colombo, Delhi, Dhaka, Kuwait, London-Gatwick, Mumbai, Oslo and Singapore. He added that services to Multan and Sialkot were being considered. Air Blue was also the first airline to introduce e-ticketing in Pakistan. “This was a concept previously unknown to Pakistani travellers,” explained Abbasi. “By means of e-ticketing, wireless check-in and self check-in kiosk facilities, we gained a distinct advantage over our competitors.”
Like most other airlines, however, Air Blue was also adversely affected by the economic recession last year that all but wrecked the global travel industry. It is for this reason, said Abbasi, that the airline did away with business class and converted all its fleets to economy class. The airline has also ended full-service meals, replacing it with sandwiches and pastries while the Chinaware crockery has been replaced with plastic ware, which is standard industry practice.
Having said that, however, Air Blue has still managed to capture a significant portion of the market. According to Abbasi, the airline has more than 20 per cent of the domestic air travel market share and this it managed to capture within the first six months of its operations. “We also have a very profitable load factor of over 90 percent given our e-ticketing services,” he explained.
Some of the high passenger market share can also be attributed to the airline’s frequent flyer programme: Blue Miles. Once a passenger has collected enough miles they are able to upgrade to the Blue Card which is then followed by the Platinum Card. “The service was initially started on its own but in 2009, we collaborated with the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to further launch a promotion on the bank’s credit cards,” he added.
After the introduction of the open-sky policy in the early 90s, several private airlines came to the forefront but were unable to sustain themselves. Air Blue on the other hand, has managed to silence its critics by staying afloat. They are giving the state-run airline a run for their money and, according to Abbassi, their big plans for the future will continue to do so for a long time to come.