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VIDEO: Inside FlySafair’s ‘disruptive’ innovation strategy

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 05 Mar 2024
FlySafair's CIO Eswee Vorster details the ups and downs that come with being a digitally-obsessed airline, how tech can advance scalability, where the airline is headed in the age of artificial intelligence, and whether consumers can expect inflight WiFi in the near future. #itwebotr #flysafair #digitaltechnology

Self-professed “digitally-obsessed” low-cost airline FlySafair has no plans to pump the brakes on its technology and innovation efforts, given the competitive-edge it can gain.

This is according to CIO Eswee Vorster, speaking in a wide-ranging video interview with ITWeb.

This year marks 10 years of low-cost carrier FlySafair in the skies.

FlySafair’s approach to its digital strategy centres on technology, data and processes, says Vorster.

“It's really around efficiencies, ultimately. We do it in two ways – firstly, we look internally towards the operation itself. How can we work better? How can we streamline processes?

“It's not always those big things that you have to do when you speak digital; there are small enhancements that we focus on, but a lot of the efficiencies that we’re trying to gain when it comes to digital are operational-focused.

“The second part, which is important, is passenger-facing. Today's travellers are more tech-savvy than ever before, which is exciting for us. This is not to introduce complex solutions but [something that is] hassle-free. It's really about giving the customers tools, data and information that's easily usable, and that for us is a key driver when it comes to our digital strategy.”

FlySafair CIO Eswee Vorster.
FlySafair CIO Eswee Vorster.

On the operational front, Vorster explains this mainly has to do with processes, which is why the airline has been exploring robotic process automation (RPA) over the past year.

“The aim of RPA is to see all those repetitive, mundane tasks…are automated to save time. We've rolled out just under 10 processes so far within the organisation. With RPA, we’ve seen there’s definitely a cost-saving element, but time-saving is of the essence.

“This is so that we can really apply our resources – the people who are working on those mundane tasks – to focus on other core elements within the airline. We've seen RPA as a big success driver for us until now.”

Clickatell’s 2022 Chat Commerce Trends Report: Travel Edition found that 87% of consumers would like to use mobile messaging to interact with airlines, and 77% said they are willing to use a mobile payment link with travel brands.

It noted that commerce within mobile messaging is becoming the preferred way for consumers to transact, accounting for 71% of retail traffic and generating 61% of online shopping orders.

FlySafair is among the airlines that have embraced the trend of interacting and transacting with customers via digital channels, including its website, mobile app and now WhatsApp.

While there have been many highlights in terms of bringing these services online, there have been some challenges, reveals Vorster, noting the FlySafair “crazy” birthday promotions among the challenges.

A FlySafair aircraft.
A FlySafair aircraft.

At the start, the airline focused on the core elements, which has been its website as the storefront and selling point, he comments. “We’ve been obsessed with our website since day one, on the e-commerce side of things. This is one of the things I’ve been involved with, to get it off the ground and flowing.

“It’s an absolute learning experience as you grow. Aviation tends to deal in a legacy technology environment, so the systems are still quite old school. It's really hard to innovate around that, but we set ourselves the goal that the one thing we will do is be a disruptive innovator in the tech space and that became part of our DNA as we grew through the years.

“We’ve moved forward in terms of where we are. We are in the process of having to replace and upgrade some of our core operational systems, which is a different beast on its own.”

Vorster estimates the FlySafair mobile app, which launched a few years ago, has reached about 1.6 million to 1.7 million downloads.

“We're pushing that very hard…and not just as a sales channel. It’s about managing your journey, getting updates on where your bag is and informing customers consistently throughout their journey.

“Something refreshing that we've done recently…we've launched a WhatsApp chat commerce channel. Passengers can check-in online and track their journey through WhatsApp.

“Almost everybody in South Africa has WhatsApp, right? If you've booked with me, I can automatically give you the information at your fingertips in an application that you use, so things like that are quite exciting.”

Tech drives scalability

With all the recent noise around artificial intelligence (AI), Vorster says FlySafair is curious to see what the fuss is about and how AI can be leveraged in the aviation industry.

“It comes back to the mining of data, machine learning and those types of things – it's very exciting out there. Some of it is still unknown, but we are testing the water…and will then see what it all entails.

“We see technology as a competitive-edge. It's not just something that we need to do, but we are extremely passionate about technology and what we want to put out there. Also, for the business, scalability is important. It's a disruptive industry; things can go well the one day and not so much another, and you need to be able to adapt to that.

“Scalability and the speed with which you want to move with technology is something that we drive. It's a core focus for us on a high level within the organisation.”

Turning to whether FlySafair customers can expect to connect to WiFi while in flight, Vorster notes there needs to be a strong business case for it.

“First and foremost, we’re a low-cost carrier, so that means we’re trying to keep our operational cost as low as possible so that we can give our passengers prices as low as possible – no frills and no fuss.

“If we start implementing WiFi on planes, it means the ticket prices will ultimately go up because we’ll have to incur the cost of WiFi.

“I know it would be cool, but for now it’s not on our radar, to be honest. Some of the regional flights are longer; we might start looking at something there in the future but the domestic flights aren’t that long. Is there a business case for WiFi locally? I’m not too sure.”