After launching Sunlight Express Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic, CEO Ryna Brito has prioritized the customer experience to succeed.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was unclear how many firms in the aviation sector would survive. Dozens of airlines went out of business and countless more faced plummeting revenues and bankruptcy.
When Sunlight Express Airways, the Philippine-registered boutique airline, made its inaugural flight from Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila to Busuanga in Palawan in December 2020, the global pandemic was at its peak.
Despite officially launching at perhaps one of the most challenging times the aviation industry has ever experienced, the leadership of CEO Ryna Brito has ensured the airline has not only survived, but thrived.
"Our vision from the very beginning has been to revolutionize the industry."
"Our vision from the very beginning has been to revolutionize the industry. I’ve always wanted to innovate in terms of technology and innovate the service offered. I think that’s what sets us apart from our competitors," Brito explains.
A large part of the success Sunlight Express Airways has enjoyed is down to the heavy focus on customer service, according to Brito.
"For example, we review our customer feedback forms on a weekly basis, and not just with the marketing team – the entire management committee looks through all our comments and suggestions from customers," she adds.
In a bid to improve the customer experience, Sunlight Express Airways has embarked on a number of fleet projects. The cabin refurbishment project of the ATR 72-500 fleet is set to be completed within the next few years and focuses on retrofitting seat covers in leather and enhancing the cabin interior lighting. Galley upgrades, too, can be expected and will see new carpets and partitions.
With parts shortages commonplace across the industry, Brito and her team are working to tackle this by looking to enter a parts pooling partnership. In practice, this will help both Sunlight Express Airways and other airlines to recover rapidly after any technical defects are discovered, helping reduce downtime and increase aircraft availability.
The end goal of all these initiatives is to boost the customer’s experience at all points of their journey. Even relatively small improvements can build up to benefit customers who want to enjoy a smooth trip.
"We’re actually not just any other airline. I believe we’re the only boutique airline in the Philippines, so we take into consideration the comfort of our passengers when they travel, and also prior to traveling, we want the reservations aspect to be as seamless as possible, too," she adds.
There’s no question that without the mix of suppliers and partners that Sunlight Express Airways has created, the airline would not exist today. During the pandemic, the firm relied heavily on partnerships – with hotels, COVID-19 testing facilities, restaurants and retail partners – to keep revenue levels up.
"That was the only way we were able to keep ourselves afloat," admits Brito. "Sunlight Air, during the pandemic, became the first Philippine airline to be known for its travel bubble packages across different destinations. For example, in Culion, we have at least 10 hotel partners."
The innovation travel bubble concept would see travelers fly direct to different island destinations from Manila and go straight to an all-inclusive hotel, to reduce touchpoints and keep the health risks low.
"Sunlight Air, during the pandemic, became the first Philippine airline to be known for its travel bubble packages across different destinations."
Like any other airline, aircraft maintenance is an essential service for Sunlight Express Airways. Everything from defects to bird strikes can result in unforeseen maintenance that can ground aircraft for weeks. As buying spare engines is not cost-effective for the airline, Brito and her team are working to establish a partnership with a services provider for engine leasing.
Dornier Technology, a leading provider of maintenance, repair and overhaul services for commercial aircraft, is another vital supplier that supports aircraft maintenance. Thanks to the lower price point offered by Dornier, Sunlight Air is able to achieve competitive prices, making them an attractive option compared to higher priced competitors.
The worst of pandemic-related airline restrictions may be over, but airlines still face intense challenges from high costs and even higher customer expectations. By investing in the customer experience, Sunlight Express Airways is set to not only meet the demands of customers today, but will also ensure the airline is futureproofed and able to serve customers long into the future.
A number of pressing challenges, including technical problems and a lack of skilled staff, are causing issues for airlines. For Brito, safety is the priority and she works to solve any issues quickly so customers are impacted as little as possible.
"Although you cannot control these things, like you cannot control your engine suddenly having problems, you can do everything in your power to reduce the impact this has," she says.
"Things like requesting slots, for example, are very difficult right now. A lot of airlines are experiencing maintenance issues at the moment, too. The only thing we can do right now is to prepare and make sure that we can be transparent with passengers," she says.