Graham Newton talks to Dimitris Gerogiannis, CEO, Aegean Airlines about remaining resilient in the face of crises
What lessons have you learned from the past year?
Aegean has a longstanding experience in managing challenging situations. In the past, we have overcome the economic crises in Greece, for example, by working together with our people. And we have learned to be fast and agile and to adapt as situations develop.
But if something is to be remembered from the past year, it is that it has been the most difficult time in the history of world aviation. Irrespective of how well prepared you are, the crisis caused by the pandemic exceeded any measure of the unexpected or unpredicted compared with any past experiences.
Even so, the commitment and agility of our people and the support of our customers meant we adapted our operations, network, and strategy as quickly as possible.
From this crisis we will emerge even more resilient and competitive.
How has the disruption to your airline hurt the overall Greek economy, including tourism?
This has been a devastating year for the Greek economy, tourism and our company. During the first wave of the pandemic in March 2020 our operations nearly ceased.
The partial lifting of travel restrictions across Europe in July allowed the gradual resumption of international flights, but at a very low level of activity compared with 2019.
Nevertheless, several countries remained inaccessible, demand was weak due to the pandemic, and the lack of coordination on travel protocols severely affected the restart efforts.
Greece is over 70% down in visitors and the Greek economy registered a deep recession during 2020. We are still at a very critical phase of the pandemic and there is a lot of uncertainty but the vaccination programs throughout Europe point to some sign of optimism later this year.
Have governments done enough to help the industry?
I think all governments across the world, including the European Union and the Greek state, have been facing a completely novel situation and, given the circumstances, have done well.
But the role of the state in undertaking initiatives that limit the impact of the crisis, will remain crucial.
I don’t know if a second wave of support measures will be necessary for the entire industry, but certainly the travel and tourism restart worldwide will remain slow during 2021. It is very important therefore that the necessary protocols and guidelines for air travel are defined and agreed and the first phase of vaccinations progress quickly across Europe.
Such measures will be essential in getting us out of the dire situation we have found ourselves in for the past year..
What are your plans and hopes for 2021 and beyond?
Of course, we remain firmly committed to health-safe travel and supporting tourism in 2021, as we did in 2020.
In 2021, our goal is to win back our passengers, maintaining our commitment to provide high quality services, which will be enhanced with measures that we have taken to meet and exceed the health requirements.
For us, this is the beginning of a gradual, yet difficult, return to the so called “new normal.”
Specifically, our plans call for connecting an increased number of popular Greek island destinations with international destinations. This will have a key impact in supporting the Greek tourism sector.
Against the catastrophic impact of the pandemic in aviation, we will continue our efforts to improve our service offering to the customer, improve our competitiveness, and keep contributing substantially to the Greek economy, as we have done so far.
As always, we will make every possible effort to keep Aegean among the most resilient carriers in Europe.
Do you think we will see permanent changes in the way travelers book or the experience they want when they fly?
Because the pandemic continues to bring uncertainty and government responses still unravel, the customer response is still in flux.
Airline customers are keen to travel. But they will only do so under the condition that health measures are strictly applied across the passenger journey and that countries implement common travel protocols that are efficient, stable, and predictable.
It’s clear that passenger health and safety will be a core element of the customer experience in the foreseeable future. We expect to see passengers place greater emphasis on things such as cleanliness and other hygiene measures.
The commitment of airlines to consistently implement the new travel protocols and hygiene standards will need to remain, along with a high level of service, always a top priority for the customer.
Once the health concerns are met, we may be surprised about the pent-up demand for travel.
What about the overall industry structure? Do you see cooperation or competition as the best way forward?
The airline industry has always been driven by innovation, which has led to increased competitiveness. At the same time, cooperation in different forms has also characterized the industry.
In the foreseeable future, both elements will remain a strong driver.
Has the crisis forced the working relationship with airports and ATM to improve?
It is the nature of our industry that airports, airlines, and air navigation service providers share a symbiotic relationship.
Structural and operational improvements, which were anyway required in pre-pandemic times, have now become even more necessary after the huge disruption that hit the travel industry. So, collaboration has to improve for the industry restart and future sustainable operations.
Has the need for digitization accelerated or do airlines now lack the money to invest in technology?
The airline industry has always had its fair share of digital innovation incorporated in every part of the business, from the customer journey to operations to the back office.
Technological solutions, such as biometrics, modern tools for data analytics, the Internet of things, and so forth, have the potential to improve the experience at every step of the customer journey.
Of course, the pandemic and the related need for social distancing has contributed to the faster penetration of digital solutions in every business.
For me, it is obvious that this trend will continue. And that means that related investment is necessary for an airline to remain competitive in the new era.
Do you have messages for your staff, customers, and industry colleagues given the uncertain future we all face?
The airline industry has witnessed quite a few crises and most probably there will be many others in the future. You never know when the next one will come and with what severity.
But what you can do is make every possible effort as an organization to be on a solid footing and improve competitiveness so that you can, to the extent possible given the severity of each crisis, cope with it and emerge more efficient and competitive.