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Steady flight path: how Bonza's learning to overcome any 'turbulence'

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Bonza has had a meteoric trajectory in the past year, spreading its wings across the east coast of Australia from its Sunshine Coast Airport headquarters. And like any successful fledgling business, the nation’s only independent, low-cost airline is learning lessons and owning its mistakes.

In an exclusive and frank interview with Sunshine Coast News, almost five months after Bonza’s official take-off, chief commercial officer Carly Povey has revealed startling Sunshine Coast passenger numbers, the most popular route and the real reason behind some of the airline’s recent cancellations.

Bonza began its rollout of 27 routes to 17 destinations on January 31 when 186 passengers on Flight AB777 left Sunshine Coast Airport to the Whitsundays aboard the new Boeing 737 MAX, nicknamed “Bazza”.

Guests at the Airlie Beach long lunch celebrating Bonza’s first flight on January 31 to the Whitsundays.

It was wheels up on the first Australian airline launch in nearly 17 years.

Saturday, May 6, saw the last of the initial Bonza routes take flight from its home base: Tamworth to the Sunshine Coast. Melbourne to Mackay was the final route launch on May 23.

Ms Povey admitted there was still much work to be done and the journey was a “marathon not a sprint”.

“Safely, sensibly, sustainably” has become the new Bonza mantra and philosophy driving all operations.

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Having delivered its promise to better serve domestic and regional routes (93 per cent of which were not covered by any airline until now), Bonza was in a “stabilising phase”, Ms Povey said.

That involved “tweaking the basics” – continually improving customer service and operations – and “finding our stride”, especially in smaller regional airports that “have never seen aircraft of this size, have never seen an aircraft of our type before”.

Bonza chief commercial officer Carly Povey.

“We received CASA approval towards mid-January. We went on sale on January 27 and our first flight was January 31,” Ms Povey said.

“We moved at pace – that was absolutely the right thing, given the impact to community and the patience and length of time these things take.

“It’s no mean feat to roll out that number of routes in that length of time and we couldn’t be happier that we’ve called the Sunshine Coast home.

“But now it’s important that we recognise we’re in a period of stabilising because we’ve just made the largest network launch in Australian aviation history possible.

“Of course, there are learnings and that’s healthy. If I sat here telling you there weren’t, there’d be something wrong.

“So now is about stabilising, reflecting, learning, resetting and moving forward to the next phase.”

Passengers from Melbourne arrive at Sunshine Coast Airport on Bonza’s first flight from Tullamarine Airport.

Speaking on Wednesday from Melbourne – the airline’s “second home” – Ms Povey proudly announced that Bonza to date had flown 125,770 people in and out of Sunshine Coast Airport.

Half of that number alone were inbound to the Sunshine Coast.

“The message here is, we are seeing strong support for the difference that we bring in terms of destinations and price,” Ms Povey said.

“We’ve seen strong benefit for many of the destinations we fly to from the Sunshine Coast.

“But we’re also seeing really strong inbound demand for the Sunshine Coast.”

With southern states rugging up against icy winter cold, Ms Povey revealed that Bonza’s current most popular route was the Murray River border town of Albury, NSW, to the Sunshine Coast.

“If you were to speak to our friend Nick (team leader of Albury Airport operations, Nick Politis), he would tell you the day that we started flying between Albury and the Sunshine Coast, he walked around the town like Santa had delivered Christmas early,” Ms Povey joked.

“He said there was just so much support, so much excitement. It’s absolutely translating into strong demand potential for people in particular to fly into the Sunshine Coast.

“The Albury community, particularly for leisure but in general, has very little choice and so now they get the chance to travel to the Coast.

Bonza’s arrival in the Australian aviation industry has created travel demand across the east coast.

“Likewise, the Sunshine Coast will have the chance to visit the only ski destination we have on our network. Albury is the gateway through to the Albury-Wodonga region and even through to the likes of Falls Creek.

“We absolutely believed in (Albury), clearly due to the launch, but I’ll be honest with you, it’s been a beautiful surprise just the scale of demand.

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“Through to the end of this month, we have very few flights as we go into school holidays that aren’t 100 per cent full on that route.

“It’s just a beautiful story all round of truly creating new leisure demand.”

Ms Povey said Avalon was the next most popular route to and from the Sunshine Coast, opening up Geelong and the broader Victorian regions, bringing the Great Ocean Road and Adelaide that much closer.

Sunshine Coast Airport’s then CEO Andrew Brodie enjoying fresh Victorian ice-cream on arrival at Avalon Airport.

“For a state that’s come out of very harsh COVID restrictions, to be able to fly from your local airport and to now fly direct (to the Sunshine Coast), we’re seeing really strong demand from Avalon,” she said.

Ms Povey said early talks with Sunshine Coast Airport executives and the experience of COVID isolation highlighted the need to better connect Queenslanders by air.

And Sunshine Coast-Cairns – the third-most-popular route – justified Bonza’s faith in better servicing the state’s regional areas.

But it hasn’t been all smooth skies. The airline has had its teething problems, with social media comments and complaints circling around delays and cancellations.

Ms Povey revealed pure “bad luck” was behind some of the most recent cancellations.

Up to 10 bird strikes in the past eight weeks had grounded multiple aircraft at different regional airports – for more than four days, in some cases.

“They happen with airlines. That’s not unique to us but it’s an untypically high number,” she said.

Pilot training has been interrupted by ‘untypical’ numbers of bird strikes at regional airports.

Quite apart from the inconvenience to passengers, however, the downtime had impacted the final stages of the aviation start-up’s current pilot training program.

“At this stage in our journey, we’re going through a process around pilot training and the final stage of their training process involves them flying,” Ms Povey said.

“If your aircraft aren’t in the sky, your pilots can’t complete their training. It’s that simple.

“It (bird strikes) has had an untypically significant effect. We’ve recovered wherever we can.

“We’ve leveraged the app strategy to communicate (with customers) as early and as proactively as we can. And the core feedback from customers has been that’s been really well received.

“The majority of airports have actually noted it to us, saying, ‘We’re seeing a difference in trend with your customers when there are issues because they’re getting that information in advance’.

“However, it (the cancellations) is not where it needs to be.

“If I sat here and said to you ‘It’s in line with industry’, that wouldn’t make me comfortable because we always said we’re here to do something different.

“We’re also far from complacent or arrogant about the fact we’re only just starting to build trust.

“For customers who have a great experience – wonderful. But for customers that don’t, we absolutely have to stare into why that is.”

Bonza has revealed availability of stairs to aircraft is one of the problems affecting on-time performance.

Ms Povey said Bonza’s on-time performance was critical but something as simple as unavailability of stairs for its Sunshine Coast-based aircraft was having a major effect on arrival and departure delays.

“There’s a few things in the system right now that are causing some need for improvement in our on-time performance,” she said.

“It is improving month on month but it’s not where it needs to be.

“Right now, the majority of our aircraft are single boarding.

“We have a number of stairs arriving, and we’re working to implement them as quickly as we can so we can do front and rear boarding. That means more customers can board at the same time from both doors, which speeds up the process and plays quite a big part in on-time performance.”

Bonza broke new ground globally when it chose to use an app for all direct bookings, information and communications with travellers.

Ms Povey said “99 per cent of all our bookings” were being made via the app.

Customers also had embraced the app’s direct in-flight food and beverage system, which removed the need for intrusive trolleys clogging up the aisle.

“It’s incredible how many customers say to us ‘It’s so liberating’, and just creates a different vibe in the cabin,” Ms Povey said.

“The big thing we wanted was to give our cabin crew ‘legends’ the chance to be functioning in a much more meaningful and less transactional way, and the removal of that barrier of the trolley we’re hearing makes a really big difference.”

App improvements have been ongoing.

“Of course, there are learnings when you disrupt to that extreme and you’re the first globally to do it,” Ms Povey said.

“There’ve been progressive improvements continually to the app since we had that first flight in January. That includes improvements to the ease of accessing boarding passes and checking in online.

“That wasn’t without feedback and learnings. There were some very positive things but there were absolutely some things that we needed to improve on.

“Today we’ve had another update to further support the ease of accessing boarding passes in wallet for example on the app.

“Particularly with the app strategy, we’re at the start line. We’ve seen really, really strong adoption of the app. We’ve seen some incredibly good feedback. What we’re also clear on is that absolutely we need to keep pace and we need to keep improving.

“The focus right now is not on next new bright shiny thing, it’s on tweaking the basics – that fine tuning. You can test, test, test all you like. But until you are in a live environment with customers, there are some things you just can’t fully learn. We have to keep ourselves honest about that.”

Bonza has sourced 100 per cent Australian products for its in-flight food and beverage menu, including Sunshine Coast items.

Ms Povey said Bonza was very thankful for the support of all its communities and realised its purpose went “way beyond just allowing people to fly”.

On the Sunshine Coast, that meant the broader economic benefit to tourism and the food and beverage industry’s producers as a result of the locally sourced in-flight menu.

The sky’s the limit for developing those relationships, expanding partnerships and finding more local opportunities.

But as for adding routes and destinations, Bonza, like any successful business, will be led by customer demand.

“We will go where the demand is,” Ms Povey said.

“Where there are routes that we can see there is significant demand, and we believe there is more we can do, then absolutely that would be something we’d be focused on.

“There may well be areas where there isn’t demand. With some routes we’re getting to the stage where we’re starting to see where demand is very positive versus where demand might justify some changes.

“It’s really important that we maximise those aircraft where customers want us to go. But will there be growth beyond that? Absolutely.”

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