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“We won’t fly long-haul flights”

The heavyweight of European skies, easyJet seeks to continue its growth in Europe without relying on long-distance flights. Thomas Haagensen, executive director of EasyJet Europe, explains.

FROM PACKAGING TO COMMERCIAL AVIATION

Born to a family with Danish and German origins, Thomas Haagensen grew up in Switzerland. After studying Business Administration at HEC Lausanne, he began his career in 1996 at Tetra Pak. From 2004 to 2008, he lived in Beirut where he was Tetra Pak’s head of sales for Lebanon and Syria. In 2008, he joined easyJet as a country director for Switzerland and Germany. In July 2017, he was named executive director of easyJet Europe. He spends most of his time in orange planes between London, Berlin and Geneva.


 

Faced with the threat of Brexit weighing on its business model, easyJet, historically based at London Luton Airport in the United Kingdom, had to take action. In July 2017, the British airline created easyJet Europe, a subsidiary based in Vienna. In time, it will manage nearly 150 aeroplanes, or half the fleet of the orange airline. The executive director of this entity, Thomas Haagensen, spoke with Swissquote Magazine. Find out more in this interview.
 

On 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. How has easyJet, a UK-based airline, prepared for this deadline?

As of right now, no one knows what the actual consequences of Brexit will be for air traffic. But we couldn’t wait until negotiations were complete to take action, because in the event of a “hard Brexit”, UK airlines could lose the right to fly freely in European airspace. Obviously, flights to and from the UK will continue. But we’re still unsure about inter-European flights. Will a British airline like easyJet still be able to operate flights from Berlin to Paris after 29 March? There’s no guarantee. So we decided to create a new airline based in Vienna, easyJet Europe, which received its Austrian Air Operator Certificate (AOC) in July 2017. We’re now in the process of re-registering some of our British planes under this new company. Our pilots are also getting their European licences. Before the UK leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019, easyJet Europe will have between 130 and 140 planes, which will allow us to continue operations regardless of the outcome of the negotiations between Brussels and London.
 

What are the other issues associated with Brexit?

The location of our headquarters isn’t the only challenge. Brexit brings up many regulatory questions that we’re in the process of figuring out. It’s a huge amount of work. For example, the United Kingdom could leave the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). If no agreement is reached, it could be the end of reciprocal recognition of certification for aircraft and safety procedures. So for example, if we repair one of our aeroplanes in a UK airport, it would no longer be able to fly in the European Union because the spare parts that were made in the United Kingdom will no longer be automatically recognised in Europe. Passengers and aeroplanes coming from the United Kingdom will also have to go through additional security checks. However, we remain confident about signing an agreement that will address these issues.

 

“MARKET CONSOLIDATION WILL CONTINUE IN EUROPE”

 

In 2018, easyJet transported 14.5 million passengers to or from Switzerland, which is a record number. Is there still room to grow?

Yes, there’s still room. Our growth strategy is twofold. First, we must consolidate our existing strengths. In Switzerland, that’s Basel and Geneva, where our market share is at 60% and 45% respectively in terms of passenger numbers. To maintain this position, two new planes were added to our Basel fleet this summer. They will be able to carry an additional 500,000 passengers per year to and from Basel. In Geneva, the number of planes will remain the same (14 aircraft), but we’re gradually replacing the 156-seater A319 with the A320 (186 seats) and the A321 (235 seats), so we will be able to increase capacity without additional planes.

Secondly, we’re constantly opening new routes. For example, starting 29 October, we began a Geneva-Rennes flight. Everywhere in Europe, there is demand for new destinations. In Zurich, we’re not planning to park aircraft at the airport, but we’ve strengthened existing routes, especially to Tegel, Berlin’s second-largest airport.
 

To increase growth, are you looking to break into the longhaul market, like the lowcost airline Norwegian?

Absolutely not. We especially don’t want to stumble into markets and concepts that we aren’t experts in. Long-haul flights are an entirely different beast. We prefer to focus on what we know, which is short- and medium-haul flights. Of course, if there were no longer any growth opportunities in these markets, we would look at long-haul flights. But that’s not the case at all, as evidenced by our arrival this year at Tegel Airport in Germany.
 

What makes long-haul flights so different?

At easyJet, we’re used to working in European skies, which are open. When you leave European airspace, you need to obtain traffic rights for each country. The context is very different. Additionally, personnel scheduling becomes a lot more complex. At easyJet, a flight crew completes one or two round trips per day, and then they are replaced by another crew. At the end of the day, everyone is able to go home. With long-distance flights, that’s no longer the case.

Furthermore, at easyJet, we only use one range of aeroplanes: Airbus A319, A320 and A321. This means that our pilots can fly every plane in our fleet. Until recently, long-haul flights needed bigger planes, like the Airbus A330, which requires different training. However, that’s about to change with the launch of the A321neo LRs, which can handle long-haul flights.
 

Given these differences, do you think that the low-cost long-haul model can work?

I don’t know. Several airlines are trying it. But it remains to be seen if this strategy actually works. Currently, this business model is at the testing stage. Let’s talk about it again in five years. One thing is certain, however: market consolidation will continue in Europe. In the United States, the four largest airlines control 75% of the market, whereas in Europe, the four top companies (Lufthansa, Ryanair, IAG and Air France-KLM) only control 50%.
 

But there is demand for lowcost long-haul flights. For example, easyJet launched its Worldwide service last year...

Yes, in September 2017 we launched Worldwide, a platform for connections with long-haul flights from other airlines, like Norwegian, WestJet, Virgin Atlantic and Singapore Airlines. Essentially, customers can use this platform to book and pay for flights to North and South America, as well as to eastern Asia. Over the past year, our platform has grown significantly: more and more airlines are joining us, which proves that there is real demand. But this service doesn’t take us out of our area of expertise.
 

Many traditional airlines, like Swiss, have copied easyJet’s model. What makes you stand out from the competition?

Compared to other low-cost carriers, we’ve come closer to our customers by flying into main airports; 300 million people live within one hour’s drive of an easyJet airport. Compared to traditional airlines, we have a size advantage: we’re a pan-European company, with planes based in eight countries. That gives us an overall perspective on the European market, whereas raditional companies such as Air France or Swiss stick to a national approach. As a result, we’re starting new routes, such as Geneva-Nantes or Toulouse-Seville.
 

Increased air traffic can raise people’s hackles due to the amount of pollution generated. Can you defend that?

We’re very aware of this problem. Our business model actually requires maximum optimisation on all fronts, including our fuel consumption and therefore our carbon footprint. All too often we forget that emissions are a cost, and we’re a low-cost airline. With our Airbus A320neo and A321neo planes, our CO2 emissions have dropped 15% and noise pollution from take - off and landing has been cut in half, compared to previous generation aircraft. Noise reduction is particularly important for airports like Geneva that are close to the city centre. And on the tarmac, we only use one engine when taxiing.

But we don’t want to stop there. We’re still working on a great deal of innovations. For example, since early 2018, we have had a chief data officer, which means we can now use the immense amount of data that we have. We’ve also developed a predictive algorithm to determine if a flight will be on time. It analyses all the elements, such as the weather, cloud cover, and state of the fleet to predict late arrivals and make adjustments so that late flights have the least possible impact.
 

And you’re hoping to fly an electric plane in 2030 – isn’t that unrealistic?

We’re working with US company Wright Electric to develop a 100% electric short-haul plane that could be used on flights of up to 500 km, such as London-Amsterdam, by 2030. By supporting this type of project, we want to act as a catalyst. The auto industry made the leap to electric vehicles. Why not the aviation industry as well?

 

EasyJet in figures

298
The number of planes operated by the company, including 25 in Switzerland (11 in Basel and 14 in Geneva).

93%
Average occupancy rate of easyJet planes in 2018.

7
The average age in years of easyJet planes, making it the most modern fleet in Europe.

80
In grams, CO2 emissions per passenger per kilometre emitted by easyJet planes, compared to 116 grams in 2003. In comparison, new cars sold in Switzerland in 2017 emit an average of 134 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

88’500’000
The number of passengers transported by easyJet in 2018 – a record figure, up 10.2% compared to the previous year, which places the company 5th overall in Europe. The top spot goes to Lufthansa, which transported 130 million passengers in 2017, followed by Ryanair (129 million).

 
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