Posted on Tuesday 8 November 2016 by David Elliott
Saad Hammad, Chief Executive Officer of FlyBe
Sitting down to interview the boss of an airline is always going to be a whirlwind, and Saad Hammad is no different.
The dynamic head of FlyBe has flown into Northern Ireland only for one day and isn’t going to waste much time with small-talk.
Before Ulster Business has the time to shoot the breeze about the unseasonably good weather and the uncharacteristically on-time arrival of this scribe, he’s off, pressing points he feels strongly about in the direct manner with which he has run the airline since taking over more than three years ago.
It’s this manner which is attributed to FlyBe’sreturn to profit for the first time in nine years, one which seeks out efficiencieswith an eagle eye.
All would be well were it not for the fact that in the rush to put pen to paper Ulster Business has grabbed a pen from the jacket pocket (not one advertising a rival airline, for once) which quickly runs dry.
Saad ploughs ahead regardless, but PR to the stars Jane Wells quickly steps in with a replacement pen which was no doubt much lighter by the time we’d filled 10 pages of notes.
In essence, he said FlyBe is very much committed to the Belfast base.
“What we do here in Belfast is very much about what Flybe does,” he said. “We’re a community business and Northern Ireland is very much a shining example of that.”
The last time Ulster Business had met Saad was a couple of years ago at London City Airport when he was launching, amongst a host of others, the route to Belfast City.
How has it performed since then?
“The Belfast route has performed well. It takes three to four years for our routes to reach maturity.
“Is there room for improvement? Yes, but we’re very encouraged.”
That’s despite the fact the environment in which his and other airlines are operating in isn’t ideal at the moment given the uncertainty caused by Brexit and recent terror attacks across the world.
And, the drop in fuel prices – seemingly a boon for airlines – has resulted in a jump in the number of short haul flights in Europe, creating a sharp increase in supply and pressure on yields.
Nevertheless, he’s backing Belfast, particularly post-Brexit.
“We’re here for the long haul and are very committed to Northern Ireland but we’re keen to make sure Belfast is competitive, particularly versus Dublin. We want to make sure the voice of the people of Northern Ireland are heard politically as the government starts to negotiate the final exit arrangements from Europe and, of course, we want to continue to provide connectivity.”
Part of that competitive line of thought relates to air passenger duty, something Saad believes should be rethought for short-haul regional routes.
“I’ve proposed that the government levy it in a fairer way,” he said. “It should be reduced by 50% for all regional airports, a cut which could be funded by having a congestion charge for slot-constrained airports such as those around London.
“That’s much fairer approach for UK-wide regional growth.”
And he pointedly makes reference to the proposed £9m bailout from the Executive for the Belfast-Newark route.
“That route is well served out of Dublin. That money would be better spent funding start-up routes and airport expansion.
With that in mind Saad is also championing the expansion of Heathrow’s neighbouring airport Northolt.
He has mooted a new route from Northolt to City of Derry Airport, a suggestion that comes shortly after Ryanair said it would drop a number of routes from the city.
It’s through these kind of initiatives that Saad sees FlyBe being able to come into its own, using its smaller, more agile airplanes to serve regional routes from less popular airports.