Fiji Airways CEO André Viljoen took the stage at yesterday’s APEX/IFSA Thought Leadership Conference to discuss how the carrier overcomes challenges daily by “punching above our weight” and embraces the Fijian philosophies of Bula and Talanoa in everything they do.
After a brief introduction by APEX CEO Dr. Joe Leader – who mentioned that he first flew Fiji Airways just before joining APEX and has been a fan of their top-flight PaxEx every since – Fiji Airways CEO, André Viljoen, greeted the crowd with one word: “Bula!” which he said translates loosely as the spirit of the country, welcoming and inviting you to where happiness will find you.
“And it’s more than just a greeting. We genuinely believe that if you visit Fiji you will find that happiness,” said Viljoen. “Today I’m going to share our passage to success with you. It has been a daunting journey for a small island national airline with an inherently challenged business model, and very limited resources.
“A small airline with what I call massive grit that consistently punches above its weight to survive and thrive. Yes, Fiji Airways, a small airline who for the five years before COVID, during and now after, has systematically elevated itself to stand alongside industry giants to achieve what we did yesterday, attaining the APEX Five Star rating.”
Sharing his insights on the challenges faced by Fiji Airways at every turn – not to mention the dozens of similarly positioned airlines who failed to cope with their own “inherently challenged business models” – Viljoen said the thing that has helped guide Fiji through the many storms they have weathered is their focus on six guiding principals.
1. Building on their proven grit: by focusing on Fiji’s leadership, people and cultural transformation programs.
2. Continuously benchmarking and optimizing their business model: by engaging leading airline specialists to help Fiji assess, review and benchmark their success against the “world’s best” airlines.
3. Building service quality: by consistently engaging team members through “culture building” refresher courses like the carrier’s hugely-successful Up Your Service (UYS) program.
4. Modernizing their aircraft fleet: by introducing next generation Airbus A350 and Boeing Max8 aircrafts into their fleet.
5. Investing in a world class aviation academy: which reduces the number of foreign contract pilots needed while increasing the number of local pilot promotions and progressions.
6. Relentlessly driving their strategic purpose: even during the most unexpected of times.
Quoting everyone from Nelson Mandela to philosopher Ken Wilber during his wide-ranging presentation, Viljoen talked about the importance of emotional intelligence, his leadership transformation to “leading as a coach,” and summed up Fiji’s response to the pandemic with a classic quote from Winston Churchill: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
“What we discovered during COVID was the strength and power of our executive and senior women,” said Viljoen. “I have to admit, if it weren’t for our women, I don’t think we would have pulled through the way we did because they brought qualities that the men just didn’t.”
Aside from being far more collaborative, Viljoen said Fiji’s female team members improved communication by embracing a common purpose and creating a truly transparent environment. “Because they were more honest … we saw an amazing amount of critical thinking that they drove in the business.”
They also helped transform a difficult situation into something positive by embracing communication through daily executive team meetings and weekly deep dive sessions known as Talanoa meetings.
“Talanoa in Fijian means, everybody has a voice, and that you have a discussion and you all give input. So we ran Talanoa sessions, and we still do it today to really drive our strategy and drive on the actions we’ve determined. I believe this is one of the things that played a massive influence in our survival.”
Currently experiencing a 17.6% increase in bookings from the same time period in 2019, despite the fact that 30% of their network is still not operating, Viljoen said the pinnacle of Fiji Airways’ current winning streak was earning Five Star Airline status at Wednesday night’s APEX Awards.
“I always remember the saying from Nelson Mandela: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’ And I think when we started with COVID, we thought we would never make it. And here we are standing today, a five star airline and our performance is way beyond anything we’d have ever expected.”