Sky Express was founded in 2004, and Aviareps Group’s other subsidiaries, Swissport Hellas and Skyserve have undergone a set of ownership restructuring. Share with us a little bit about your journey and how Aviareps Hellas has come to be the company that it is today?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: Led by Aviareps Hellas, which is a holdings company, we have a diversified portfolio of activities. The main focus is the aviation and tourism industry. We have two of the three licensed ground-handling companies in Greece. Which is Greece Port Hellas, which acts as a franchise of Swiss Port, but it is not owned by Swiss Port. And SkyServe which is a ground-handling company, it is state-owned but under privatisation. SkyServe is in 37 of the 39 commercial airports in Greece. Swiss Port is in 22 of the 39. Through these two companies we service international clients and our own Sky Express. We serve the large legacy carriers, for example British Airways, Thomas Cook – we’ve serviced them for many years in all the Greek airports. We are seeing a continual increase in flights to Greece and an increase in passengers. In 2016 we handled 150,000 flights for our clients. Through our hands passed more than 25 million passengers. This is a sign of the health of the Greek tourism industry.
Do the two handling companies work in tandem together?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: Each has its own clientele. They serve different clients. SkyServe has started an MOU to create a new product with COSCO regarding the handling of air freight, for cargo. SkyServe has a major cargo facility at the Athenian airport. We have with COSCO shipping created the Belos platform, which is a fourth mode of transportation from Piraeus. This means that now you can transport from Piraeus, as a major European logistics hub, by ship, rail, road and now air. We are still busy formulating this as a unique product proposition. We want Piraeus to be a cutting-edge, leading service base for all logistics for the European market. We also own Sky Express. It is an airline that was established by us in 2005. Its business model only focused on routes between the islands and didn’t involve many commercial flights. In 2015, we decided to change the business model. At this time, we carried 70,000 passengers per year. When we changed the business model completely, adding commercial routes and re-organising our presence in the routes, in 2016, we now carried 170,000 passengers. In 2017, we will end the year with almost 500,000 passengers. Growth has been exponential.
You will need a bigger fleet for this, correct?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: Yes, we did invest heavily in aircrafts. We fly with APR’s, they are smaller aircraft which are perfect for the smaller island runways. They are cost-effective and perfect for the operations and circumstance to fly in. We have gradually renewed the fleet and in 2017 we acquired two new airplanes and now two more. Our average flight time in Greece is only about 45 minutes. So, we are increasing the frequency of flights between the islands, which increases the utilisation of the fleet.
Does the company have a privileged position with the PSO routes? Are you concerned about foreign competition who might enter the local routes?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: Greece is a mixture of a variety of destinations. We are a small country and yet we have 39 airports – this shows that we are spread out, through the islands, and usual connections to the islands are only ferry boats. In Greece, we have two tiers of the market: bigger routes, for commercial purposes that can host bigger airplanes; and smaller ones, which service smaller airplanes like the APR’s. In total, the Greek government recognises 28 PSO routes. Out of these 28, we do operate on some of them with complete exclusivity for the next four years. These routes are quite difficult ones and connect smaller islands with each other. We have 10 routes that we share with Olympic Air. So, in these 10, we have competition.
What can you tell us about the island-hopping product? Has it been officially launched? Is it a concept that will be marketed?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: The idea came from the fact that we have public service connection routes – connecting islands with each other. Having done this operation for many years, we felt that we can serve tourists through other islands that would be lucrative. We want to make it easier for tourists to experience all of Greece.
Will this be outside the PSO routes?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: Yes, we are currently designing outside the PSO routes. It would be a complete tour that can be experienced. Now, with the relaunching of our position in the market, we are developing a model that will offer a full range of the available routes for an island hopper. It will be a unique experience to connect all of Greece. We want to launch this island-hopping experience as a very user-friendly experience, a connected service. We hope to have it ready by the summer of 2018.
Is Sky Express targeting any international routes?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: Not for 2018. However, we have chartered flights to some destinations nearby. We are carefully exploring our overseas prospects, to serve within the range of the APR planes. We might increase our fleet to other types of aircrafts, but this is probably only in the long-run. Nothing like this will be launched before 2019.
What is the distance range for an APR?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: We can fly to Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania – there is a wide-radius of distances that it can cover.
There has been impressive growth in terms of tourist arrivals to Greece, but revenues haven’t grown proportionally. Looking at Sky Express particularly, have you had to make efforts in terms of lowering your pricing? Was there a pricing strategy that you had to take on in the last 4 years?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: The markets we move in are extremely competitive. The competition did put a lot of pressure to make prices very low. Both the ground-handling and the commercial travel prices have suffered due to the competition. They are exposed to the international markets and therefore they act according to the forces and pressures of the international market. The rise of the numbers made it sustainable to compensate for the price war.
In terms of ground-handling, how have you seen the evolution of cargo over the past 3 or 4 years? Do you foresee a real boost in the cargo sector?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: In terms of air-freight, the volumes decreased over the years. This is because air is an expensive means of cargo. Greece isn’t considered a hub for airlines. We hope to turn this around, to turn, for example, the Athens Airport into a hub. COSCO will turn Piraeus into a hub for shipping and will allow for cheaper prices for shipping. This will make it more difficult to keep air freight competitive. Global players are always looking for the cheapest prices. In terms of air freight, we don’t necessarily see that there will be an increase in exports; but we could potentially hope for Greece to become a logistics hub and so doing, take the benefit of cargo. The important thing with air freight is it is time-saving. So, you do have many players who need their products to reach a market in a short time, they have to choose air. Therefore, if Greece as a whole can become a hub, we will benefit from in the end.
How will the alliance with COSTCO work?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: With Shipping Hellas, one of our subsidiaries, we will create an open-access digital platform that will link the port to the airport. It will provide all the facilities, including custom clearance, to expedite the processes of customs, to make it easier to transport and transit. It will be an open-access platform to link port and airport.
This is being developed at the moment?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: It is being tested at the moment. We still need the regulations to be perfected – the processes and procedures need regulation to be adapted. In the meantime, we are testing the entire thing along with its needs, its flows and all the factors that will impact the flow of cargo. It will take some time, but we are confident that it will be very fruitful.
The younger generation in Greece is struggling to a lack of local opportunities, we do see a lot of them turn their sights overseas. Particularly gearing the question to younger women, what can you share with them, given your experience as a businesswoman and entrepreneur?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: Greece, having been in a recession for more than 10 years, is losing valuable human assets. It is difficult for a woman to be in a leading business position in Greece. However, what I have learnt is that, if you try hard and commit yourself, you can reach your goals. Currently, it takes a lot of commitment being successful as a businesswoman, and it is possible to also be a mother at the same time.
I would like to offer you the opportunity to share a final message with the readers of The Times?
Ms Vassiliki Christidi: I believe that Greece is a unique country. We are a happy and inviting country. It carries a lot of its rich past in its present situation. Business-wise, it generates unique opportunities. We have learnt to survive through tough circumstances; we work hard and offer our best. We want to succeed and therefore it makes us a unique investment opportunity. The human capital of Greece is immense; Greeks can manage to succeed when they work in an organised environment, when they have specific goals. We are a country of innovation and of fresh ideas and when we all work together, we can succeed as a country.