Airline aiming to RAK up new business
RAK Airways has begun codeshare flights with Etihad. Alan Peaford talked to RAK's CEO, John Brayford, about the airline's strategy.
There have been many rumours and many doubts about RAK Airways since it was first mooted more than six years ago.
Flying Boeing 757s and ordering four 737s, the airline went through a series of CEOs faster that Etihad could invest in other airlines. Then, in 2009, RAK Airways folded.
A year later it returned with a new livery and a new management. Now John Brayford, a former British soldier and veteran of BA and Qatar Airways, is at the helm and it is no longer a sinking ship.
“I can understand why people struggled to see what we have been doing,” Brayford said. “We looked like an airline worrying about transporting pilgrims or labourers. Now there is a clear, visible connection between the aspirations of Ras Al Khaimah and what RAK Airways is doing – and the codeshare with Etihad is an immense contributor.”
Since the 2010 relaunch there has been a clean and controlled plan and Brayford praises the airline’s board for its wisdom and support. “The plan was to operate our two A320s on a regional basis. As the core of our business nothing has changed. We have taken possession of our own aircraft rather than ACMI leasing and we will receive our third A320 for the early part of next year. That will be used to improve what we currently do, and do more of what we currently do rather than extend the network with new destinations,” Brayford said.
“We need to make sure we get good connections if we are to be an attractive alternative to a more direct carrier, because the destinations around this part of the world are, by and large, very well served with very active competition from the four key carriers elsewhere in the UAE.”
The airline will be adding Dammam in Saudi Arabia in the spring next year. “There is already a large amount of business there and secondly there is massive investment going into Dammam over the next few years. The third aircraft enables us to do these things,” Brayford said.
And are there more aircraft on the way? “The lead times you need for getting aircraft are getting wider and wider, especially to get a good quality A320 from the market. We are working at the preliminary stages for winter next year,” he said.
The additional aircraft will enable RAK Airways to step up frequency on its newest route, the Etihad codeshare flights to Abu Dhabi.
“If we want to attract domestic travellers to get off the road, we have to have a frequency that attracts a daily business traveller or overnight business traveller,” Brayford said. “That’s not going to happen overnight because we can’t afford to take the risk to put double daily on now. We will be going daily in December and we expect to go double daily in spring next year.”
The codeshare allows RAK Airways to offer five long-haul connections – London, Manchester, Dublin, Geneva and Bangkok – because it had not been party to previous bilateral discussions. Etihad will be selling its entire network through Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah.
“So we’ve not just got RAK Airways selling those five codeshare destinations, which we hope in time to increase substantially, but the deal enables Etihad to have a presence in the northern emirates that they wouldn’t otherwise have and for us in return to have a presence in Abu Dhabi which, as a destination itself, will be very helpful in supporting our own RAK Airways regional network,” Brayford said.
Since talks with Etihad began, the smaller airline has been getting involved in all of the bilateral discussions. “The GCAA has been very helpful,” Brayford said. “The talks they arrange with respective partners overseas are set up for sectorial discussions. Countries seem willing and prepared for this. They don’t just seek rights with Dubai but also Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and now us. Countries are responding very well,” he said.
RAK Airways will soon be adding Frankfurt, Munich, New York, Chicago and Washington, followed by Belgium and several African destinations.
But the real challenge facing the airline is with a small home base – the last census showed a population of 250,000, although that has grown dramatically and could top 350,000 in next year’s census – it has to reach out to a wider catchment.
“We have Umm Al Quwain, Ajman and Fujairah close by but genuinely our job is to attract passengers from Sharjah or even Dubai. I won’t pretend it’s easy, it’s a big challenge but I think we can do it.”
So is the airline low-cost, full service value, hybrid or what?
“We have positioned ourselves not as a low-cost carrier and we provide a fully inclusive product,” said Brayford. “There is a good meal on board, free refreshments, a 30kg baggage allowance and the added attraction at RAK airport of free parking. The small size of the airport is not a disadvantage, as it is congestion free and easy to get through in both directions.
“People travelling get through in a few minutes compared to Dubai, where it can be a couple of hours if you arrive in peak of peaks.”
But compared to the big boys to the south?
“If you travel on regional flights of two, three or four hours, then some of the hard product standards that the big carriers have, such as flat bed seats, 750 movies and so on, are really not suited for those sorts of flights, so in some respects it’s a waste of your ticket money. We position ourselves as better value than full service carriers and offering more value for money than the LCCs, but at the same time providing a good standard of quality product and a high standard of service – and that is proving very popular with our customers,” said Brayford.
In June RAK Airways went a step further to differentiate itself from the value carriers.
“We launched our business class product – RAK Premier – and decided our USP has got to be service,” Brayford said. “We can’t operate with the massive investment that the big carriers have put into their premium cabins but we offer a comfortable seat, a really good quality meal, complimentary chauffer car in the UAE, but we also offer a personal service as each customer is met at kerbside, escorted through check-in and security to the lounge and then to the aircraft. On arrival it’s the same thing, as premium passengers are met at the bottom of the step and escorted through immigration to the car. And if it is their own car it is less than 100 metres from the terminal and no parking bill to pick up,” he added.
Brayford said that the airline’s five year plan is to “do more of what we are doing now”. He sees a potential fleet of 20-22 aircraft, with some destinations double daily and many more daily.
Load factors are currently around 73% but Brayford is aiming at the 80% mark – “That’s where the routes become potentially very profitable,” he said.
On time performance is between 80% and 90%. “But with only two aircraft, if one is late we lose 50% of our rating,” he said. Even so, the airline is looking carefully at some timings, particularly with the evening flight to Calicut, which coincides with a peak of ATC problems every day.
It is this attention to detail and consistent improvement that is making people sit up and take notice of RAK Airways.
“Certainly the evidence we have so far is that, even operating on very thin frequencies of two or three flights a week, we are able to attract a significant number of customers who are able to get a flight where they don’t pay for anything after they have bought ticket; who like being well looked after on the aircraft, and who like the simple arrival or transfer at RAK airport. We are working closely with RAK airport’s management team as we want to keep that advantage as we go forward,” Brayford concluded.