Andrew Madar, CEO at Cobalt exclusively reveals to Cyprus Traveller that the airline is aiming to launch direct flights between Cyprus and China by September 2018, with services to the US, South Africa and Latin America also high on its agenda.
CT: Firstly, can you confirm which destinations Cobalt directly connects Cyprus with?
Andrew: We’re currently flying to Athens, Thessaloniki, Heraklion, Chania, London Stansted, Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin, Paris, Brussels, Madrid and Zurich.
In our region, we also fly to Tel Aviv and Beirut which are both very intense operations as they are almost daily services. I say almost daily because we’re not flying every day to Beirut, we are flying seven times per week, where two days each week we fly twice (there and back) on the same day.
We’re also lining up to start operations to Tehran, Iran where we’ll likely start flying twice per week before going up to three weekly flights towards the end of June, as well as scheduled flights to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
We also fly from Pafos Airport to Athens which is presently our only flight from that airport, although we’re currently evaluating to offer flights from Pafos to Brussels, Dublin, London Stansted and Birmingham this winter.
CT: Are there any new destinations going to be added to Cobalt’s expanding route network soon?
Andrew: Further down the road we’re looking at Amman, Dubai, Egypt; probably Cairo and Alexandria.
We’re also looking at a few other charters, possibly connecting Tel Aviv with France, for example.
Additionally, we also recently started an ACMI operation from Milan.
CT: You came to Cyprus from China where you were previously based for 20 years. Is launching direct flights between Cyprus and China something you’ll be looking to do?
Andrew: Absolutely. One of our investment groups is Chinese. We have a very good relationship with the Chinese government who have mentioned Cobalt within China’s massive ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. Cyprus is included within the 900-billion-dollar programme and Cobalt, specifically, is mentioned as one of the key airlines.
No other airline on the island has the ‘footprint’ we have in China so we’re going to bring that market here.
The long-haul target is direct flights between Cyprus and China, but we’re also looking at other destinations like South Africa, the US and South America.
From Cobalt’s early beginnings we looked at developing Cyprus into a hub. Our fleet has been limited to short-haul A320-type aircraft for now. Our next phase is looking at long-haul operations with A330 and 787 aircraft.
I’m looking to finalise the long-haul aircraft before August 2017 and then launching the flights between Cyprus and China by September 2018 if not earlier.
Initially, we’ll only start with two long-haul aircraft going to two or three destinations at the beginning.
CT: Since the ‘original’ Cyprus Airways ceased operations, Cypriot airlines such as Cobalt, Orion Airways, Tus Airways and now the ‘new’ Cyprus Airways have since launched. Ultimately, is all this extra domestic competition better for Cyprus tourism or does it present more risks?
Andrew: It depends. I think as an airline it provides more competition and more risks because it’s just too much capacity for the market size.
It doesn’t help us [Cobalt] and it doesn’t help them either for sure. Does it help the Cyprus tourism industry? Again, I’m not sure. Of course, when it comes to ticket pricing there’s more competitiveness which is good for tourists.
We’re not going to get into a ‘price war’ as we will set our threshold and benchmark and compete based on service quality, time performance and all the other service aspects.
However, when there’s other major airlines like Aegean Airlines, Blue Air, Ryanair and easyJet, to name just a few, that fly here, I think it’s almost too much capacity, especially for Winter. For the Summer period, the capacity will probably be used.
Cobalt has the biggest fleet and we’re pretty much settled with our operation. I think the other airlines need to make a good business case for what they are trying to do. I don’t know exactly what their plans are but I think competition-wise Cobalt is in a pretty good shape.
CT: When deciding to travel then, why should travellers choose Cobalt for their journey?
Andrew: We’re using a ‘low-cost’ carrier model but are not purely that. At Cobalt, we use a low-cost and full-service combination with the right balance for short- and long-haul operations.
I don’t believe travellers from Cyprus and the region are pure low-cost customers.
I’ve spoken to many passengers and they tell me how surprised they are – surprised with how we’ve designed our cabins and service quality. They enter the plane and their initial reaction is “wow!” We aim to give our passengers more value-for-money than other ‘typical’ low-cost carriers.
We put a strong emphasis on customer service and aim to make the passenger experience when travelling with us much nicer. For example, we ensure each passenger seat pitch is comfortable and are not tightening space to save costs; we’re also going to offer a business class option.
Right now, we offer what we call ‘comfort seats’ which are full-size business class seats which don’t really exist anywhere among other low-cost carriers. We will change the ‘comfort seats’ to what we will call ‘business light’.
At Cobalt, we have a great on-time performance record, a convenient schedule and connections, and airports for our passengers.
I’m hoping we find return customers and not just first-timers who just ‘come and go’. We want our passengers to come back and fly with us again.
CT: Does that mean Cobalt will look at introducing a frequent-flyer programme?
Andrew: Exactly. We want to create a customer base here. We want passengers who can pay that little bit extra and care about the actual flight experience.