Julian Cook may be the chief executive and founder of innovative Swiss regional carrier Flybaboo but his black labrador, Tofu, is by far the more renowned figure.
Images of Tofu are prominently displayed on Flybaboo’s first aircraft, website, advertisements and Christmas cards. Tofu was on Flybaboo’s inaugural flight from Geneva to Lugano in November 2003 and accompanies Cook to just about every event the carrier holds. It is rare a picture is published of Cook without Tofu, who,
Cook says, is a key part of Flybaboo’s “young and dynamic image”.
Cook, who at 33 may be the youngest chief executive in Europe, likes to point out Flybaboo is very different from a traditional carrier. Its slogan is “A breath of Swiss air” as it is totally independent, operating eight routes from its Geneva hub without any codeshares or partnerships with legacy carriers. It offers a lounge that is not only complimentary for its passengers but for those of other airlines as well.
“It gives us visibility, a taste of the image, of the brand of our company,” Cook explains when asked why he chose to establish a lounge in an open area of the Geneva airport instead of behind closed doors.
Even with the lounge and its famous dog mascot, Flybaboo is not a household name outside Geneva. But that may change as Cook embarks on an ambitious expansion strategy that will see the carrier add larger aircraft, a second base and potentially acquire other regional carriers.
Flybaboo in March will place into service the first of at least two 70-seat Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprops. It also has committed to acquiring five Embraer 190 jets, the first three of which will be delivered in the second quarter of next year.
The first Q400 will be used to launch on 25 March two new routes, to Marseille and Naples, giving Flybaboo 10 destinations from Geneva. Service to Biarritz will also be launched in June. Flybaboo will also upgrade its Valencia service from once a week to daily.
Flybaboo will take its second Q400 in August. This aircraft will be used to upgrade busy routes such as Prague-Nice and Geneva-Prague from the smaller Q300 currently operating. One of Flybaboo’s two Q300s will be returned after the second Q400 is in service.
Cook says the Q400 will allow Flybaboo to compete more effectively against low-cost carriers because it has a lower per seat operating cost and is faster than the Q300. Flybaboo now competes against easyJet on the Geneva-Nice and Geneva-Prague routes.
“Fifty-seat propellers are arguably not the best equipment,” Cook says, adding that since November Swiss International Air Lines has also been operating the Geneva-Prague route. “It’s a ridiculous situation but that’s the reality of today,” he says.
Swiss is also launching service in March between Geneva and Valencia. On most of Flybaboo’s other routes, Flybaboo is the only carrier offering non-stops.
Cook plans to use the 190, which will be Flybaboo’s first jet, to operate busy short-haul sectors and to launch new longer-haul markets from Geneva. “We’re convinced the 100-seat jet is the right size for this market,” he says, adding that destinations as far east and south as Cairo are being considered.
Cook also hopes to use the 190 to launch scheduled services to London City airport. Flybaboo last winter operated charters from London City to the Swiss ski resort Sion using the Q300 and later this winter plans to operate charters on the route using the Q400. Cook says he is interested in launching scheduled services between London City and Sion with the 190, explaining the Geneva-London City route does not appeal to him because Swiss now has six daily flights on the sector.
“We should be the first London City 190 operator. As part of our contract with Embraer, they’ve guaranteed London City certification,” he says.
Embraer plans to certify the smaller 170 at London City this year, although no existing operator has yet unveiled plans to operate the aircraft into the shortfield airport. Embraer now plans to certify the 190 in late 2008 but Cook wants the certification schedule accelerated to allow Flybaboo to operate it into London City after it takes delivery of its first 190 in April 2008.
Moving it forward
“We’d like to move it forward,” he says. “Now the contract is signed we’re putting pressure on Embraer.”
Cook envisions basing three 190s in Geneva and using the other two on order to potentially open a second base. Cook says he is discussing partnerships with several other carriers which could bolster traffic on its existing Geneva routes and help support the launch of new routes outside Geneva.
“We are having a few discussions with partner airlines. Depending on the outcome, it could mean more or less capacity in Geneva,” he says. “The second base we’ll look at after we get the 190.”
Cook says the partnerships will result in codeshares on select routes and will not cover Flybaboo’s entire network. The codeshares will give Flybaboo more connecting business. Cook says 90-95% of the carrier’s business is now point-to-point with the remaining 5-10% of passengers making their own connections in Geneva.
While codeshares will require Flybaboo to acquire new software, Cook says the extra revenues to be generated make the investment worthwhile. “The general model is to try to keep our costs low. We do have on board service we don’t charge for. We’ll look at codeshare deals on a case by case basis. We have a few long-haul airlines coming into Geneva that have interesting traffic,” he says.
Flybaboo has not yet been able to turn a profit but Cook believes the planned route and fleet expansion as well as the new partnerships will give the company, which now has only 75 employees, the critical size required to become profitable.
“We see us breaking even when we reach five or six aircraft,” or in fiscal 2009, he says.
Flybaboo is now able to pursue aggressive expansion after securing SFr12.1 million ($9.6 million) in new capital late last year. The new funds came partly from its original batch of owners, most of which are individual Swiss investors, but came mainly from a new source, Lebanon’s M1 Travel. Cook says M1, which is controlled by the Mikati family, now has a majority stake in Flybaboo and will also own all of its new aircraft. Cook is now helping M1 look at acquiring other regional carriers.
“We’ve had preliminary talks with a few airlines that could give us critical mass,” Cook says.
He adds the newly acquired airlines could potentially operate some of the aircraft on order and on option but M1 may also lease some of the aircraft to airlines they do not own. In addition to the two Q400s and five 190s on firm order, M1 now holds options for four more Q400s and five more 190s.
The Mikatis have the cash to build a regional carrier empire and have identified aviation as one of three industries they want to invest in using some of the proceeds from the $5.5 billion sale last year of their Dubai-based telecommunications company. M1, which looked at buying BMED in January before the carrier’s sale to bmi, is now looking at investing in several carriers in Europe as well as Africa and the Middle East.
Cook says the Mikatis’ search is not restricted to regional carriers, but some being targeted have a similar model to Flybaboo.
“This is not a must. We’re just looking at opportunities,” Cook says. “This is in the very early stages. There’s nothing we’ll announce tomorrow.”
If no acquisition is completed, Cook says Flybaboo can also grow organically. After operating a fleet of only two 50-seat turboprops for three years the growth may seem sudden but Cook is convinced the timing is right.
“We developed our business model the last two years. We developed some routes and some areas we have a competitive advantage on,” he says.
For Cook, it has always been about timing. He quickly launched Flybaboo after Swiss announced in July 2003 it was dropping eight routes from Geneva from the end of October 2003. “It was too good to be true. It was a perfect opportunity to launch in Geneva,” he says. “It was crazy. It was four months of craziness.”
Cook succeeded in launching Flybaboo with one wet-leased Q300 on 3 November 2003, only a few days after Swiss pulled out of the key Geneva-Lugano domestic market. It added a Geneva-Venice service later that month and in May 2004 began operating its own Q300. By the end of 2004, three more routes and a second Q300 were added.
Cook was familiar with the process of starting up an airline, having tried unsuccessfully in 2000 to launch an all business class airline in the USA that was aiming to operate Boeing 757s in the New York to London market. He also was not a stranger to airline finance, having worked in Chase Manhattan’s aircraft financing unit in London until 1998. He also spent six months in 1999 as a consultant to Southern Winds, a former Argentina-based Bombardier operator which gave Cook exposure to the regional market.
All the expansion means Cook is now looking for new dogs to profile on his aircraft.
Cook, who grew up in Switzerland with a British father and Indian mother, named the airline in honour of his mother - Baboo in India means patriarch and the logo is a turban. But when it came time to baptising his first two aircraft, Cook chose “Tofu” in honour of his beloved labrador and “Samy” in honour of his father’s labrador. Flybaboo is now holding a contest to select a dog to be baptised on its new Q400. The winner will be selected before a 15 March aircraft christening ceremony.
“We don’t have any more dogs in our family,” he says. “So we’re asking our clients to send in a picture of their dog and the dog’s name.”
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