Aviation Tribune talks to Captain Richard Brown, Chief Executive Officer of Atlantic Star Airlines, a start-up airline created specifically to serve the British Overseas Territory of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Captain Brown has more than 20 years of aviation experience and is passionate about establishing a sustainable and viable airline operation to the island of St Helena.
Can you briefly tell us about the past and present of Atlantic Star Airlines? Why St. Helena?
We see great potential in the future for St.Helena as a niche tourism destination for adventurous travellers interested in its history, its unique environment and its remoteness. As such we set about creating an airline to meet the needs of the island and to solve the unusual operating challenges associated with St.Helena (ETOPS, remote, short runway, terrain).
Where do you see Atlantic Star Airlines in five years time?
Operating flights from St.Helena to Ascension Island, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Walvis Bay and subject to the Windshear issues being solved also to the UK.
How would you describe your management style?
I try to give everyone the opportunity to run their own area of the business and not to micro-manage. If you can demonstrate that you trust an individual and value their contribution they perform to their best ability.
What qualities are needed in a modern airline CEO?
Relentless focus on the customer. Honesty and transparency with staff, business partners and customers alike.
Can you tell us some words about your staff?
They are amazing. What we are trying to achieve with Atlantic Star is ambitious and in many ways unprecedented – they understand that and give of their all because they believe in the that goal.
Atlantic Star announced the cancellation of planned October services over safety issues related to the prevailing wind shear conditions at St. Helena Airport. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
It was a grave disappointment to have to cancel our flights, but once we were made aware of the Windshear situation is was unquestionably the correct course of action. We were always happy to let Comair operate before us in the basis of their subsidised status but with hindsight we should have given them more of a head start in operating and thereby minimised our own exposure. Lesson learned.
Work continues to mitigate the challenges of wind shear at St Helena Airport. What could be the solution?
In the short term operations into Runway 02 is the answer. We are looking at the AVRO RJ100 as the ideal aircraft for this as it works well when landing in tailwind conditions onto limiting runways. Longer term we hope a better understanding of the wind effects on Runway 20 will allow operations to be carried out safely in much the same way they are at other similar airports such as Funchal and Gibraltar.
There are lots of risks in the airline business. What do you see as the biggest?
Political factors beyond your control that affect the fundamentals of our business.
British Airways (Comair) is facing the same issue, as they had to suspend their flights to Johannesburg and Ascension from St. Helena. Are your airlines cooperating to find a solution for this issue?
Comair have been excellent in sharing their data with us. We are both working with St.Helena Government towards a solution that will meet the needs of the island both short and long term.
Your only service will link St. Helena with the United Kingdom. Is it viable for an airline to operate in a niche market like this one?
Yes. Operating a single aircraft will always have a degree of operational exposure so we see a two aircraft solution as ideal when the market for flights to St.Helena expands, but that needs to go hand in hand with the tourism infrastructure on the island.
Is there room for further expansion?
As outlined above we see potential to link St. Helena with Ascension Island, Walvis Bay, Cape Town and Johannesburg. But in the future we could look at Accra, South America and Canaries as ways to expand, with the right equipment.
St. Helena Airport is working hard to get these flights going. Are you happy with the infrastructure and infrastructure costs in the region?
Regarding the region as a whole we are happy as long as it is a level playing field for all airlines. There is a specific issue regarding fuel pricing on St.Helena but we hope that time, volume and experience will change that!
How important is the role of Atlantic Star Airlines for the development of an island like St. Helena?
TUIfly will initially operate your flights. Are you planning to operate your own aircraft in the future?
TUIfly can only offer us the Boeing 737-800, not the best aircraft for Runway 02, which is a shame because they have been fantastic for us.
What would be the right aircraft type for Atlantic Star Airlines?
Right now the AVRO RJ100 with extra tanks is the perfect aircraft for us and St.Helena.
With mergers and joint ventures gaining momentum, is there still a place for the small airline in the aviation market?
Yes. Know your niche and stay in it.
To understand the market: who is the standard customer of Atlantic Star Airlines?
There are two groups: Saints travelling to/from the island and visitors wanting a new and exciting destination experience.
Why should our readers fly with Atlantic Star Airlines?
Because we are creating something amazing on St.Helena and they might want to see it for themselves.
What type of service can a passenger flying with Atlantic Star Airlines expected? (low-cost, full service, hybrid..)
We are hybrid, we have to be to best occupy the niche we are in.
We thank Atlantic Star Airlines and Captain Richard Brown for their help in facilitating this interview.