The final day of APEX/IFSA 2023 Global EXPO saw SimpliFlying CEO Shashank Nigam sit down with Andre Viljoen, the CEO of Fiji Airways, to discuss the airline’s remarkable journey from a 2.5-star airline to a prestigious five-star carrier. The interview shed light on the airline’s strategic transformation and the unique leadership philosophy that powered its ascent.
A bridge to the world
Andre Viljoen began by giving the audience an introduction to Fiji Airways. As the national carrier the airline serves as a vital link to the islands. With 21 aircraft and a workforce of passionate individuals, Fiji Airways plays a pivotal role in a nation where tourism accounts for nearly 50% of the GDP.
CEO Andre Viljoen emphasised the airline’s significance, by stating, “Fiji Airways is the primary bridge to the world for Fiji, 70% of all tourists are carried by Fiji Airways, and we are also the largest earner of foreign currency for the country.”
The scale of the challenge
When Viljoen took the helm as CEO, he faced significant challenges. “What I soon realised is that 100 small airlines and small national airlines had disappeared because they had an inherently challenged business model.”
Fiji Airways faced many of the same challenges, due to 95% of traffic being leisure traffic, people looking for “cheap deals” when going on vacation. Viljoen understood that this was not a stable foundation for an airline.
According to Viljoen, “We had no domestic market, no frequent flyer programs, and formidable competitors. We needed a strategy to survive and thrive.”
In fact, Viljoen said that as recently as 2015, the airline was rated by SkyTrax as a 2.5 star airline and no. 100 in the world.
The result, according to Viljoen, was that “we developed a number of strategies. And we have continuously followed these strategies…to systematically elevate ourselves to stand amongst the giants. This was to me the biggest achievement in 2023 when we got Skytrax rated as number 15 (airline in the world). And more importantly, the best airline in Australia/Pacific.”
A Unique Leadership Approach
Viljoen’s approach to leadership played a pivotal role in the airline’s turnaround. This includes a programme to get the most out of the company’s staff and managers.
He shared, “If you want to change the culture of an organisation, you have to start with the leaders. Leadership is learned.”
The airline’s commitment to leadership development involved adopting practices such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Viljoen stated, “We aim to bring out the best in ourselves, our employees, and our organisation. Change your thinking, change your life.”
Navigating a Crisis
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “we never shut down”, said Viljoen.
“We kept flying, even when others couldn’t. We operated repatriation flights, and our teams showed incredible resilience,” Viljoen noted.
Like many airlines around the world, Fiji Airways had to raise additional funding to tide it over during the pandemic, and Viljoen said that his team had successfully managed to do so, raising $1 billion from financial institutions, which the airline is well on the way to paying back.
The airline also received funding from the Fiji Government, which was used to create subsidised holiday packages, to be sold once international air travel was possible again. The idea was that when travel restarted, the airline was ready, flying visitors to Fiji who had never been to the islands or who had flown with the airline before.
Finally, Viljoen quoted Winston Churchill’s saying of “never let a good crisis go to waste.” To highlight that, Viljoen said that Fiji Airways used the pandemic to make 65 infrastructure improvements and to embrace innovative technologies. These measures not only helped the airline survive but also positioned it for a swift recovery.
A Unique Passenger Experience
Key to the airline’s transformation has been a greater focus on the passenger.
Viljoen discussed the airline’s distinctive passenger experience, symbolised by the “Bula Circle” on their aircraft. This design reflects Fiji’s spirit of welcoming and connecting with the world. “We’re more than just an airline; we’re the custodians of one Fiji’s most strategic assets,” Viljoen explained.
As Fiji Airways continues to thrive, Viljoen is looking ahead. For example he mentioned that plans are underway to examine frequent flyer programmes, either in creating its own or joining a larger one. As part of that Viljoen also said that the airline is looking to convert Fiji Airways’ ‘OneWorld Connect’ membership into full membership of the alliance.
Andre Viljoen’s strategic vision has propelled Fiji Airways to remarkable heights. The airline’s transformation can be seen in the fact that it was recognised as a five star major airline at this year’s APEX / IFSA Awards.