INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP SEE
CEO of Firefly Airlines
Philip See, having previously studied Chemical Engineering in Imperial College London, has also accumulated extensive experience as a consultant and while working in the government sector. Now he finally finds himself in the industry that he is truly passionate for. With his unique approach to piloting an airline, Philip brings a whole new ballgame to the field.
Please tell us more about your previous work experience and how you came to be in the aviation industry.
After graduating in 2002, I had a foray into my own consulting business and other fields; however, I always had an inherent interest and love for aviation. I remember when I was a boy I used to stare at the planes as they flew back and forth from Subang Airport, seeing such majestic machines soar the skies planted a seed within me that would soon flower into something that was quite unexpected!
In 2006, I joined Malaysia Airlines as a Transformations Management Officer under the helm of Datuk Idris Jala. It was here that I learned about performance management, industrial relations, and compensation benefits to which was the best launching pad for understanding the aviation business. I later left in 2008, and subsequently re-joined in 2011 as the Head of Strategy and Network in the Group until my ascension as CEO in January this year.
How does your experiences help you in managing an airline?
In my debut in the aviation industry, I developed a deep empathy for people in the business; it is only with such an investment that I became committed to the details of the industry and the importance of engaging people on the emotional level. It is after all, a people-centric business. Therefore, I am a firm believer that a leader should have an intimate understanding for people and especially, the people they lead.
What have you learnt so far in leading Firefly?
I’ve realised that in contrary to popular corporate beliefs, the analytical desk workers do not necessarily understand the business better than the front-liners do. It is my contention that front-liners gain a firsthand understanding in learning what the customers want. It is simply not the case that the ‘numbers person’ knows more than their frontline counterparts. In light of the previous desk jobs that I’ve had, I’ve discovered that being at the frontline of the company gave me an opportunity to see the industry as a whole. However, the internal teams must buy into the vision, otherwise whatever statements made public by the leaders are meaningless.
What is your vision for Firefly and how are you planning to attain this goal?
This leads me on appropriately that, I believe, my place is to close down the disparity between the different spheres of the staff in the striving to deliver beyond just ‘convenient services’ across Peninsular Malaysia. We ought to take risks and try new things. For example, some of the things we are looking into: changing up our in-flight menu, changing flight schedules to stimulate the market and providing new ancillary services.
In addition, we are looking to build great partnerships with hotel chains for our corporate customers. Customers should look into our ‘Firefly Holidays’ campaign as well as our ‘Fly Premier’ bundles that include access to the premium lounges and priority seating, tailored just for frequent business travellers!
What are the challenges Firefly is facing now and what are the approaches that you are undertaking to resolve it?
At the moment, we are dealing with the issue of our suspended route to Singapore. We are looking to receive good news very soon. In addition, the market right now is tough and it is affecting our top line; through innovation we are hoping to offset these circumstances.
What are the key skills required in leading an airline? How would you advise students and current professionals looking to work in the aviation industry?
Leading an airline requires the patience and genuine interest to listen to people’s opinions and feedback, how they feel about our services as well as listening to the people that work in the industry- this is where a leader truly grows. This also means that a leader needs to have the sincere desire to grow and learn so that they can mobilise and drive their team as effectively as possible. A true leader is the one that disregards himself for the greater good of the airline and is not interested in serving only his own self-interests. The airline industry may be a so-called, “sexy industry”, but one needs to always be at the top of their game and to throw in the towel. Because it is extremely competitive, you have to prove that you have the mettle to thrive and survive.
At the moment, Firefly has 12 planes in its fleet. Is the airline planning to increase its capacity?
At the moment, we do not have any plans to expand our fleet. However, we are planning to fly more with our current assets, in order to reduce our bottom line. At the moment, the fourth quarterly report from 2018 suggests our load factor is between 65% and 70%. But since we fly turbo-propeller planes i.e. the ATR 72-500, our operational costs is not that badly affected by the price of jet fuel; however we do have some exposure to the USD, so it helps when the ringgit strengthens against the dollar.
What do you do during the weekends?
During the weekends, I am a Sunday school teacher, I love kids and I enjoy being part of their development. I also thoroughly enjoy travelling, some of my favourite places include journeying around Italy, taking the Trans- Siberian Railway, and walking around the streets of Tokyo.