Vino Eargambram, Chief Executive of Blackbird Aerospace ? the company that attempted to buy Nationwide Airlines earlier this year ? is responsible for the commercial operations of Airtime Airlines.
He plans to open sales for the carrier's first Durban/Johannesburg route on 4 January and start operating three daily return flights on the route from 18 January. Flights to Cape Town and/or Port Elizabeth are next in the pipeline, possibly by February 2009.
Mr. Eargambram said Airtime Airlines is a joint venture operation that will be operating under the existing licenses held by AirQuarius Aviation, the Lanseria Airport-based company it is leasing three Boeing 737s from.
"It is basically the same arrangement as with Comair and kulula, whereby kulula operates aircraft under Comair's license... Airtime Airlines is essentially only the brand name," he explained.
AirQuarius Aviation Chief Executive, Gavin Branson, confirmed that he had a commercial agreement with Blackbird Aerospace (for Airtime Airways) that allowed for the use of the company's license from the Air Licensing Council of South Africa (ALC) and Air Operating Certificate from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Both are prerequisites for airlines operating commercial flights in South Africa.
"It is now a matter of giving the ALC and CAA the mandatory 14-day notification that we will be operating under AirQuarius, which we plan to do on Monday (15 December)," said Mr. Eargambram.
The ALC, however, did not agree that it is quite so simple.
A member of the ALC board confirmed that Airtime Airlines could operate under an existing license, but she said the airline would first have to submit a request for the ALC's approval of this arrangement and the ALC would then have to meet to grant the approval.
She pointed out that the ALC board's next meeting is only scheduled for 21 January ? three days after Airtime Airlines plans to start flying.
Mr. Eargambram said he had been told the next ALC meeting would be on 4 January, which would leave enough time for the regulatory processes to be completed, but said he would look into this.
CAA spokesperson, Phindiwe Gwebu, said Airtime Airlines had not yet submitted a formal application to operate under AirQuarius' Air Operating Certificate and that the CAA had made its own enquiries after finding out about these plans via the press.
"The conditions of the agreement between Blackbird or Airtime and Air Aquarius should be formally made known to the CAA through an application process," she said, adding that the application process takes 14 days during which time several criteria must be fulfilled, including confirmation that all the ALC's conditions have been met.
Aircraft and sales ready to go...
Despite the regulatory hiccups that could possibly lead to the 18 January launch being postponed, Airtime Airlines appears to have most of its ducks in a row.
Mr. Branson confirmed that the three B737s, each carrying a maximum of 118 passengers, are serviced and ready to go and that he held an initial six-month contract for the leasing and maintenance of the three aircraft.
According to Mr. Eargambram, cabin crew, ground staff and pilots have already been hired, several of them from Nationwide.
The airline's website, www.flyairtime.co.za, was launched last week in order to familiarise the public with its product offering. A call centre and text message information service are set to be launched shortly.
Fly with airtime...
The concept behind the airline, explained Mr Eargambram, is unique in that passengers will buy airtime minutes rather than tickets and then trade in their minutes for flights.
Passengers will buy a cellphone starter pack with minutes, and if these minutes are not traded in for flights within a year, they can be converted back into airtime for all three of South Africa's cellphone networks; Vodacom, MTN and Cell C.
Although the airline's business model is based on a low-cost operation, extras such as drinks, snacks and free baggage wrap will be included in the ticket price.
"We don't plan to be the next Mango or Kulula, we are a low-key operation targeting a very distinct market ? young professionals and self-employed business people," stressed Mr. Eargambram, who said the Airtime Airline concept had been two years in the making.
He added that several other product offerings are in the pipeline, including a loyalty programme called iFLY Airtime and a unique incentive that will be revealed in the new year.
Funding and passenger protection...
Mr. Eargambram would not reveal who is funding the operation, but said there is more than one investor backing the airline. He would not confirm or deny whether a cellphone company is one of the investors, only saying that one of the players is involved in the cellphone industry.
Asked whether passenger fares would be protected by a trust fund or insurance policy, Mr. Eargambram said a consultant was currently investigating a passenger liability insurance scheme for the airline, but this had yet to be finalised.
"We are looking at having the price of insurance included in the ticket, or it could be a separate add on charge. We're not sure yet, but we definitely want to protect our passengers from instances like the Nationwide (refund) debacle," he said.
He also confirmed that Airtime Airlines will not apply for membership of the airline regulatory body, the International Air Traffic Association (IATA).
Aviation commentator and Managing Director of Plane Talking, Linden Birns, pointed out that successful low-cost airlines such as RyanAir and easyJet are also not members of the airline association.
"Non-membership of IATA should not necessarily be regarded as something negative or to be cautioned against," he said. "As long as passengers familiarise themselves and agree with their contractual rights when purchasing tickets, then they should be secure," he said.
Published courtesy of respected trade journal Travel Industry Review
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