In less than two years since its first commercial flight between Larnaca and Athens in July 2016, Cobalt Air has amassed a significant network. Cobalt skies speaks to chief executive officer Andrew Madar to explore the carrier’s rapid expansion.

New kid on the block, Cobalt Air, now serves 20 destinations across 12 countries. Its passenger count quadrupled between 2016 and 2017 and CEO Andrew Madar expects the 2017 figure will have almost doubled by the end of the year.

Cobalt Air was created following the closure of government-run Cyprus Airways in January 2015 due to what Madar terms as an “unclear business model and organisational layout”. He explains: “The revenues weren’t too bad, but the cost structure was out of control and there were problems with the decision-making process.”

Nevertheless, Cobalt Air wasn’t alone in wanting to fill the gap left by the failed flag carrier. Tus Airways began regional operations in March 2016 and now has a fleet of two Fokker 100s and four Fokker 70s flying between Cyprus and multiple Greek destinations, as well as to Rome and Tel Aviv.

Vladislav Filev, owner of Russian carrier S7 Airlines, bought the old Cyprus Airways brand, which is now part of the S7 Group. Cyprus Airways restarted operations in March 2017, but still only uses a single Airbus A319 compared to Cobalt’s current fleet of six A320 Family aircraft (two A319-100s and four A320-200s).

Cobalt is the only one of the three with both an IATA membership and an IOSA certification. However, while it may seem well ahead of its Cypriot contemporaries today, before Madar was sent to Cyprus by Cobalt’s investors, he admits the airline suffered a rocky start: “During the first three weeks of operations we had quite a few problems due to misplanning in the preparation phase.”

When he went from being a silent vice president to CEO on 1 August 2016, things started improving. Madar recounts: “We tightened up the operational performance while bringing in additional aircraft and changing our commercial strategy.

“We put the focus on network expansion as opposed to fleet expansion. Fleet expansion is more of a risk for airlines these days because if you get too much hardware you can run into trouble.

Cobalt Air: Larnaca-Abu Dhabi services
The airline is launching Larnaca–Abu Dhabi services

“We started putting our footprint on territories in a very strategic way, thinking about changes for the summer and winter seasons and using those with cultural connections to the Cypriots as our core customer base. Then we looked at routes that had minimal competition.”

Recent additions to Cobalt’s short-haul route network include twice-weekly winter services between Larnaca and Frankfurt and between Larnaca/Paphos and Moscow Sheremetyevo. From 28 March, Cobalt will begin daily flights between London Heathrow and Larnaca.

The airline has also already begun selling tickets for its upcoming Larnaca–Düsseldorf and Larnaca–Abu Dhabi services.

On top of this, Madar confirms Cobalt is also planning to offer long-haul flights. “The reason we’re doing this is because the market is very saturated with low cost carriers that fly five to six hours in Europe.

We have a very good location in Cyprus with good access to markets in the East and West from here and one of the most attractive markets today is China.

“I lived there myself for 20 years working in aviation, so I know that market very well. We have a lot of good connections there. We’re also looking at India, which is another up-and-coming market with good middle-class growth, which is our target market.

“We’ve already signed a general sales agent in China because we’re talking about trying to connect to some carriers in the Gulf and to the Far East. We’re going to start selling tickets in China very shortly for connecting flights through the Gulf. Later, once we get our long-haul fleet together, we’ll be flying direct.

“Africa is another one that’s very easy to get started operationally and we have to do some more deep-diving and some more analytics, but it seems like a good connection because there’s not that many options from South Africa to this region,” Madar continues.

Another noticeable development undergone by Cobalt Air is its transition from an entirely low cost carrier to what Madar refers to as a ‘hybrid model’.

He states:  “We noticed that the pure low cost products don’t quite match the taste of the regions and the people we’re serving, especially Middle Easterns and Cypriots – they’re a bit pickier than the pure LCC-type customer. Also, general economy seems to be improving a little in Europe – people are getting a little less price-sensitive and a little more discerning about the product.

Cobalt Air: CEO Andrew Madar
Madar says the pure low-cost products don’t quite match the taste of the regions and the people

“I knew from my previous experience in Asia that it doesn’t take much to offer something that’s a lot more attractive to the passenger, but not very costly to the airline. So, what we’ve done is kept the basic infrastructure of the LCC when it comes to the technical side of the house.

“We’re very efficient with a very low number of staff and overhead, but when it comes to product line, customer handling and so forth, we’ve tailored our product so that it’s closer to a full-service carrier. For example, we started offering a full-size business class with big seats about two months ago. We’ve already seen a huge reaction from the market on this.”

Another investment from Cobalt in the passenger experience comes in the form of in-flight entertainment (IFE). Madar notes that before the summer season, Bluebox Aviation Systems’ Bluebox Wow solution will be going on each of its aircraft.

Using a portable unit stowed in the overhead bin, it will enable passengers to stream content including up to 1.6 Tb of film, TV, audio, games and other digital content to their personal electronic devices.

“We didn’t look at air-to-ground or satellite connectivity because I think that technology is still maturing,” asserts Madar. “Also, the cost of putting additional equipment on our aircraft, which are relatively old right now, meant it didn’t make sense for us to opt for full connectivity at this point.”

It seems Madar’s embrace of the idiosyncrasies of the Cypriot market is what has ensured Cobalt Air’s success so far. Here’s to hoping that such rapid growth is sustainable and that Cyprus continues to benefit from Cobalt’s expanding network for years to come.

Visit cobalt.aero for more information.

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