Emirates chief has grounded approach to high-flying customers
Given that he's the Ireland Country Manager of the world's best known full-frills carrier, Emirates Airline, and held a series of top jobs at Aer Lingus, you might not expect Enda Corneille to be a fan of the spartan service of Ryanair.
But when asked if he's an admirer, he responds: "Oh yes, absolutely." Stranger still, he sees plenty of similarities between the carriers. "It's another good example of a destabiliser, a disruptor on the market. Ryanair are a scale airline, a profitable airline. They have defied logic: it's all about putting on the aircraft, keeping the costs down and keeping profitable through the cycle - and that could be said of Emirates as well, we're just in a different customer segment."
Emirates is celebrating five years in the Irish market, with a lucrative air corridor to the Middle East shared up to now with fellow UAE carrier, and fierce rival, Etihad Airways. But June sees the arrival into Dublin of yet another Middle Eastern carrier, Qatar Airways, and aviation watchers will be wondering if Dublin can sustain the business for three airlines doing a similar job - connecting Ireland to the world.
"We'll just have to see," said Corneille. "We're used to competing with Middle East carriers: Qatar, Etihad as well as BA [British Airways] and Lufthansa. Our job is to ensure we look after people and the price is competitive so customers want to keep coming back."
But are three routes sustainable out of Dublin? "It's hard to say. Certainly when a new carrier enters a market they tend to grow the market but this market is very well-served.
"It's interesting, Etihad went down to a single flight [ex Dublin] for most of the winter and are going back to two in April and Turkish [Airlines] have their own issues so it depends on seeing how it evolves. We welcome the competition - it keeps everybody sharp and the customers will decide if there's too much or too little."
And Dublin is a tempting prospect for the likes of Qatar, with Corneille revealing they have "good load factors" with flights 80pc full and 50 tonnes of cargo daily.
"We've increased the capacity this year to almost 25,000 a month - a 360-seater aircraft and a 428-seater aircraft every day."
With such load factors, Dublin, currently served by workhorse Boeing 777s, has a decent shout of getting what he calls "our most formidable tool" - the A380 'super-jumbo', each of which can carry up to 615 passengers.
"We just want to focus on our business and keep growing it and if we can get the larger aircraft in, if conditions justify it, we will. Ireland became profitable earlier than expected. A lot of work goes into our route decisions and when I go in and present my report card … Ireland's doing well." In fact, Ireland is the airline's fourth-biggest destination market out of Australia. "If you look at our trajectory in the Irish market it is a natural progression as we grow capacity."
With airline loyalty schemes, and lounge access a hot topic for Irish business travellers, Corneille says the airline is sticking by its full-frills model.
Oddly for a modern airline, it's quite rooted in the style of the past. "It seems quite old-fashioned but if you're a business class passenger we'll collect you in a limousine within a 70km radius of the airport, you'll get the service, on board luggage baggage allowance, seat entertainment."
He says president Tim Clark had the idea to put showers on board for first-class passengers (boosted by a Jennifer Aniston ad campaign), which Corneille says they carry "half a tonne of water" for. Sceptics told the airline that "bars went out in the '70s", but it still introduced them on the giant A380. "You could have up to 40 people at that bar. We've had marriages and divorces there and people who will go out of their way to meet up on a flight at the bar."
Falling petroleum prices, causing oil-producing nations to cut back on flights, currency issues, political instability in some Arab nations, plus terror attacks in Europe, all contributed to a dip in first-half profits last year, despite level overall revenue, and this year is forecast to be tough too. "We've had to be more competitive, we've also getting competitors snapping at our heels and it's forcing us to be maybe look at our pricing so all of that I suppose has hit our top line."
But Corneille point out that the airline is still very profitable - and has been for 28 consecutive years. While many companies have tightened their travel budgets, Corneille says there is a place for a premium product - if the price is right.
"If you're flying with us to Dubai, you'll pay a little more than €2,000 for business class. For that you will have four limo transfers, pick up, drop off other end, service on board and all that goes with it, lounges and everything else. If you fly to Chicago you could pay €3,500 and there's no limo, so... you've got to price it competitive. From the Irish perspective we see huge demand for business class."
And he says airlines could learn to be passenger-focused. "Before the cruelty kicked in of short-haul commoditisation, it was treat people with respect, offering customers more than they expected and not at a price that they can't afford."
Corneille believes that "most airlines tend to treat the economy passenger like the poor relation and all of the glitz and press releases are about the business class seat and the lounge". But he says his airline is "acknowledging that 70pc of our customers travel in that compartment, and that's where the investment should go". In a brave show of micro-managing the Irish business, he says: "If ever we get a complaint I ring the customer myself personally and just discuss it with them. People don't expect it and you get to hear first hand what happened."
The airline veteran sees the customer-focused approach as a massive cultural difference with other carriers. "If you're in my position, knowing that behind the scenes people are worrying about this kind of stuff, it's a huge confidence to sell the brand. You can say 'I stand over this' rather than feeling maybe that the airline is only paying lip service."
Sunday Indo Business