It’s hard to believe that an airline that offers fewer than one hundred seats on any of its planes has taken off in the manner Airlink has.
Moving forward in times of crisis
When lockdown put paid to most air travel, and SAA went into business rescue, Airlink quickly dissociated itself from the downfall, rising Phoenix-like as the only operational airline still flying at this time.
Rebranding its 50 Embraer jets with a new logo was only the start of Airlink’s journey to the top.
After operating as a franchise of SAA since 1997, Airlink was finally free to take its own direction and focus on growth in its own right.
In 2019, Airlink served 2.2 million passengers. This year, they’re expected to transport over three million travellers.
The secret to Airlink’s success
This incredible growth is thanks in no small part to efficient, forward-thinking leadership on behalf of co-founder Rodger Foster. Thanks to his efforts over two decades, Airlink entered the pandemic with a healthy balance sheet that helped keep it afloat during this challenging time.
Instead of engaging in a losing battle to offer the cheapest fares against larger airlines, Airlink instead focussed on ‘sustainable viability’, looking for alternative ways to add value for their clients.
This means the airline has reached out when others were holding back, pursuing more profitable international routes instead of sticking to a formula that simply isn’t working in Africa.
Sustainable viability in full flight
Despite numerous international treaties surrounding open skies in Africa, in reality, regulations and bureaucracy hamper any real progress in this area.
Airlink offers routes where demand is greatest, operating a fleet of smaller aircraft that are easier to fill and cheaper to run. The airline operates mostly Embraer aircraft, all provided by the same Brazilian supplier, and has no plans to change this any time soon.
The fleet contains 17 E135s,16 E190s, 11 E140s, and three E170s, with the balance comprising just six Jetstream 41s. Foster is considering utilising the Embraer E2 going forward, but only if they can match the profitability of their peers.
By virtue of IATA membership and IOSA-compliant safety audits, Airlink has embarked on codeshare deals with United Airlines and Emirates. Plus, it has interline agreements with nineteen global carriers, including major players such as Virgin, Delta Air Line, British Airways, KLM, and Lufthansa.
Today, Airlink flights take off over 200 times daily on 63 routes bound for 14different countries, making it the largest airline in Africa, bar Ethiopian Airlines. That’s despite having fewer available seats than both Egypt Air and Ethiopian Airlines.
During February, Airlink completed over 5000 flights. Despite its international aspirations, six in ten of these were on domestic routes.
Airlink’s African offering centres on thirty-seven key routes, between the continent’s busiest airports. All but one of these involves OR Tambo International Airport, which is Africa’s busiest travel hub.
From here, Airlink flies back and forth to Africa’s most in-demand destinations including Cape Town, Gaborone, Harare, Lusaka, Nelspruit, and Windhoek.
Internationally, Airlink has stepped up admirably after the failure of the now-returned SAA, taking over the lengthy Johannesburg to Entebbe route to Kampala in September 2021. This is the world’s seventh longest E190 route comprising 2,900 km.
Future travels for Airlink
As airline travel gets back to normal across the country, it’s encouraging to see Airlink holding its ground against other operators, consistently expanding its operations and attracting more customers.
So far, Airlink has survived a pandemic, a global economic downturn, ever-increasing fuel prices and more. In this light it’s safe to say that (forgive the cliché) the sky’s the limit for Airlink going forward.
It will be interesting to see how they continue to grow their offering in future and whether other airlines will adopt a copycat approach to their ongoing success. If that’s the case, it can only bode well for the future of the travel industry across Africa.
A winning formula is just what the airline industry needs right now.
Sources provided and: