How a small and remote airline took flight by changing its business model


Grit, mindset and a customer-service culture has pushed Fiji Airways into the big league.

Fiji Airways Managing Director and CEO Andre Viljoen has transformed Fiji Airways by handing leadership to every employee. His development of staff, innovation within the company and a change in the business model over the past five years, had by October last year pushed the small, island airline back into profit and seen it awarded a five-star APEX Official Airline Ratings™ along with bigger airlines that have huge resources, many more staff and hundreds of aircraft.

So how did he do it?

“It’s been five years of innovating from a small, three-star airline, to stand there with industry giants,” Viljoen tells Forbes Australia in an interview. “It’s been achieved with a lot of innovative strategies, but more importantly with a lot of leadership development.”

Fiji Airways Managing Director and CEO Andre Viljoen | Image source: Supplied

The company has operated with just 19 aircraft, flying into only one destination, Nadi International Airport, while other like Qantas and Air New Zealand fly the world. With no scale and 95% of its market being leisure travellers, there are obvious issues.

“When I joined the company, I realised we had the same business model as many other small airlines. In the past 15 years more than 100 small airlines have disappeared because they had not addressed their business model.

“About 95% of our traffic is holiday makers and we have very little business traffic. Leisure travellers have a lot of time and little money, whereas business travellers have little time, and more money. When your model is 95% people with little money, you are challenged.”

Adaptability, persistence, and resilience

When he started at Fiji Airways in 2016, he saw the grit of the people and credits this spirit as helping the company survive and thrive.

“I realised that with the right psychology development we could build that grit even deeper and punch above our weight and not only survive but elevate ourselves to stand among the giants,” Viljoen says.

He implemented a change to a “service culture”, giving every staff member a one-week course to build service obsession in the business. With this mindset, the company has set a target that by October 2023, it will reach a World Class six-star rating.

To facilitate that, Viljoen is adding aircraft to modernise the fleet to boost fuel saving that will bring cost savings. The company is benchmarking every aspect of the business, particularly to see how to optimise US traffic.

Airport lounge, Fiji Airways | Image source: Supplied

“We need to change the thinking of the US traveller who thinks of Fiji as ‘exotic’; a bucket-list destination that is unaffordable. 18 million Americans travel to Hawaii each year… we are not Tahiti,” he says.

Viljoen adds that Fiji needs around 4000-5000 more rooms in the next five years but has to encourage investors to build more hotels.

To boost its independence, Fiji Airways built its own aviation academy with aircraft simulators for pilots to renew their licences or complete upgrades. It has a cabin crew training facility, creating a $10 million cost saving as well as efficiencies as pilots can train on the island and no longer need to be sent around the world for accreditation.

“We bring in 70% of the tourists and tourism is 50% of the economy. We generate $1 billion a year in foreign currency for the country. We fly for the country,” he says. Major shareholders are the Fiji government, which owns 51% of the airline, Qantas has 16%, and the Fiji National Provident Fund has 30%.

When borders opened, Fiji Airways was ready to take customers on 1 December 2021. To stimulate interest in the destination, a government grant of $40 million enabled them to offer, in conjunction with the local hotels, discounted packages to the first 100,000 travellers.

“Those 100,000 packages sold like hotcakes overnight,” he says. “They stimulated a demand for Fiji. We had never had inclusive packages before, but today that is the demand. We changed the model with collaborations we had never had before.”

He is proud of his staff who he says have been “working as one to take the next step up”. He feels the changes in the business model and the focus on leadership development to “empower every employee, no matter what their job” have created a turning point that will enable Fiji Airways to further develop its customer-service culture to take them to the next level.