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Firefly banks on new aircraft to get bigger market share in the budget travel

1 April 2013

THE aviation industry, according to some, is a living, breathing organism by itself. It is always evolving and the saying "you snooze, you lose" is embedded in the DNA of every airline's head honcho.

So every other year, we see airlines going through a facelift and tummy tuck to ensure customers return, and to stay current.

This is common regardless of the business model, whether budget airline or full-service, all airlines are bound to make changes every few years.

Firefly, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines is no different.

It began operations in April 2007 and currently operates a fleet of 12 ATR 72-500 turboprop aircraft out of Penang and Subang, connecting secondary destinations within the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand growth triangle as well as providing air links between Malaysia and Singapore.

The community airline, as they are often referred to, has grown from strenght-to-strenght over the past five years.

Known for its good value as well as convenient flight schedules and excellent service for its passengers, Firefly passengers enjoy baggage allowances of 20kg, complimentary in-flight refreshments, assigned seating and the convenience of city airports.

This has won the low-cost carrier numerous accolades. The most recent was in April 2012 when Firefly was named the Most Promising Brand of the Year in the Transportation, Travel & Tourism category by Putra Brand Awards.

Five months prior to this, in November 2011, Firefly was conferred the "Superbrand" status. Other awards received include the 2010 Frost & Sullivan Value Airline of the Year award and the Green Initiative of the Year 2010 award by Leaders in Aviation during the the Doha Aviation Summit.

Despite all its success, the brand decided to refresh its looks and recently underwent a rebranding exercise to update its image.

Safety first

In December, Malaysia Airlines and French-Italian aircraft manufacturer ATR inked a memorandum of understanding for the purchase of 36 new ATR 72-600 aircraft worth RM3bil.

ATR is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial turboprop aircraft. ATR, a joint partnership between EADS and the Italian company Finmeccanica, has sold more than 1,100 aircraft and has over 180 operators in more than 90 countries. Every 20 seconds, an ATR turboprop takes off somewhere around the world.

Of the 36 ordered, Firefly will take on 20 new aircraft while 16 will be inducted into the fleet of its sister company MASwings.

This deal not only increases the size of its fleet, it also improves the safety features enjoyed by its passengers.

Firefly chief executive Ignatius Ong said safety has always been a priority for the brand and it is always taken into serious consideration when expanding.

"We want to give our customers piece of mind when they are flying with us," said Ong.

"This is was important as there is stigma surrounding propeller aircrafts even after all these years," he added.

The model that the airline chose came off the production line in mid-2011. These aircraft will have the most advanced technology available anywhere in regional aviation, helping airlines manage operational costs and meeting the public’s demand for more sustainable travel options.

Going green

The airline industry has been going through a rough patch over the past few years, but ATR can help preserve proρtability for regional airlines.

Airlines can reduce operational cost by as much as 35% to 45% by using ATR's next-generation turboprops. ATR’s planes use signiρcantly less fuel and are cheaper to maintain than jets. In fact, a regional jet may need as many as six to 10 additional passengers to break even on routes.

"Firefly serves a simple and very specific purpose and we want to keep our planes in the air as much as possible. With the new model, it is easier to fill up the seats and it takes approximately 20 minutes to turn the aircraft around," explained Ong.

ATR's turboprop aircraft emit up to 50% fewer emissions than regional jets, making ATR one of the most environmentally responsible manufacturer of regional aircraft.

ATR's aircraft will help Firefly and MASwings meet future environmental commitments to both the government and consumers and protect against future climate regulations.

"We are also conscious about the environment. Therefore, using less fuel is good for the company and environment," he added.

Enhanced look and feel

Besides the "hidden" changes, Firefly's new fleet will also provide customers with a better flying experience through a the new cabin.

The chief designer of the aircraft cabin is the renowned Italian designer Giugiaro whose work is seen in many luxury supercars such as Lamborghini and Maserati.

"The new seats are slimmer, meaning slightly more legroom. The overhead compartments for bags are also slightly bigger," said Ong.

Firefly gets the bulk of its sales through its website and the company looked into remodelling this as well.

"It is all about the user experience and we wanted the website to be accessible from any device. Now, our website fits 99% of the devices in the market,” he added.

And of course, what is rebranding if one does not play with the cabin crew’s uniform. Firefly’s air hostesses were all given new uniforms in February.

The company is also in the midst of revamping all its billboards and promises a “new” approach. According to Ong, the company is also looking at a loyalty programme for their customers.

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