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Launching an Airline in a Pandemic: Folly or Brilliant?

Ruthy Munoz
December 18th, 2020 at 2:27 PM EST

Lift Inaugural flight

Against all the odds, a new airline is launching in South Africa this month, aiming to offer low-cost domestic travel to the country’s 50 million inhabitants. The carrier’s launch comes as South African Airways sputters with financial and labor difficulties.

Lift with its fleet of three A320 aircraft started offering flights between Cape Town, Johannesburg and the affluent coastal city of George last week. But already the airline has experienced some disruptions in service.

“They’ve (George) had quite a big second wave, so we’ve actually had to cancel a few flights on that route,” Lift co-founder Gidon Novick said in an interview with Airline Weekly on Thursday. “That’s the airline business, you need to be able to make changes and be agile, as things change.”  

Despite flying two routes, Novick says Lift’s focus is going to be on one, the Johannesburg-Cape Town route.

“It’s round about the 10th or 11th busiest route in the world, which is surprising for a small country like South Africa, but it is a very busy route, Novick added.

Before the coronavirus pandemic reached Johannesburg, Lift’s co-founders — Novick, a former airline executive and Jonathan Ayache, a former Uber general manager —had not worked together. The urgent need for food distribution during the lockdown led to a collaboration between the two, Novick said. And it wasn’t until August while the two were meeting for the first time in Novick’s living room, that the idea to launch an airline was conceived.

“And I said to him, I’ve been thinking about the airline industry and it looks like an opportunity. But I’m not 100% sure and I haven’t built a team yet it’s just myself and an idea,” Novick said he told Ayache.

Four months later, Lift has 150 employees, many of them seasoned airline professionals, and planes operating regularly with nearly full loads.

The startup is operated by Global Aviation.

“We didn’t have to go buy planes, we didn’t have to go and train pilots, we didn’t have to set up maintenance infrastructure,” Novick said. “And we said, we can’t find a name for our airline can you help us?”

Novick said this type of arrangement offers Lift a tremendous flexibility to scale up and scale down as the market evolves. And as things unfold post Covid.

Novick said the airline’s traffic now is primarily comprised of leisure travelers. He is confident that business travel will return because Zoom and video conferencing has limits, but he’s just not sure when.

“It’s too early because we’re kind of brand new, but we’ve already seen a change in behavior, where people are willing to book with us, Novick said. “And, part of the brand will be around the flexibility of it,” Novick said.

He believes there’s something about flying and traveling that captures people’s imagination so really as an airline it’s a matter of riding the wave and getting as much of that tailwind as one can.

Novick and Ayache aren’t alone in launching a new airline. In Pakistan, AirSial recently launched a network of four domestic routes with a fleet of three A320s. And in the U.S., JetBlue and Azul founder David Neeleman is pressing ahead with Breeze, a new airline expected to start flying early next year.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Lift has a lease deal with Global Aviation. It is operated by Global Aviation.

Ruthy Munoz
December 18th, 2020 at 2:27 PM EST

Tags: Airlines, coronavirus, Lift, South Africa

Photo credit: Lift Inaugural fligt. Photo Credit:Lift Lift / Lift

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