Flying through turbulent times

Scoot chief executive officer, Campbell Wilson

By Poovenraj Kanagaraj,

In an exclusive interview with Business Today, Campbell Wilson chats on his return to Singapore’s budget airline, Scoot in April 2020 and how he managed a company, operating in one of the most hit industries during an unprecedented time.

Wilson who was the founding chief executive officer (CEO) of Scoot between 2011 to 2016, went on to become the Senior Vice-President, Sales and Marketing of Singapore Airlines before returning back to helm Scoot’s top position.

“It wasn’t a surprise for me to come back. I knew I was coming back since the end of 2019, but even if I had known then about the outbreak, I am not sure if I would have felt differently,” Wilson tells Business Today via a Zoom call, all the way in Singapore.

While many may not make the decision to return and lead a company through a crisis, especially one that has taken place currently, Wilson on the other hand believes that doing so provides a lot of opportunities. “Morale was low and people’s livelihood were affected. It was critical to make the right decisions to determine the survival and future success of the company,” he says, adding that it can be a quite a rewarding experience.

“You can make a difference and I did not have any regrets coming back to do so,” he opined.

Returning to steer the company through an unprecedented time also meant asking himself an important question. How does one plan on instilling confidence during a time when job security and income was at stake? Early on from the circuit breaker that Singapore was under, Scoot’s management had to find ways to avoid their employees from falling into depression. The circuit breaker in place also had a materialistic effect on their income, as many cabin crew relied on travel allowances to boost their income.

The virus which crippled the wings of all airlines left these staff on the ground with nothing much to do. However, Scoot on the other hand did a lot of work placing them in secondary employments. Some were placed in hospitals while others became social distancing ambassadors.

“We did a couple of fun things but most importantly, we also held lots of town hall session in order to answer any questions anyone had,” says Wilson. According to him, several townhall sessions went on for as long as three hours but the sessions to him was important in order to keep people engaged.

“We had to demonstrate our care and responsibility as well as maintain our capacity when the company recovers,” says Wilson.

“We haven’t gotten to the position of imposing compulsory job cuts but we have offered voluntary separation schemes and voluntary no-pay leaves. No one likes to take these options but we had to get them to understand that it was the sheer force of good for the company’s future,” he added.

With flights starting to resume regionally, Wilson expressed a little more optimism in regards to the situation the company is facing even though uptake in recovery has been slow, consistently slow for the matter. Wilson pointed out that while some routes are better than others at the moment, for instance, flights to China, has been proving to be popular again, others needed more time.

On July 14, Singapore and Malaysia had agreed to implement the Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) to facilitate essential business and official travel between both countries for up to 14 days. Those travelling from Malaysia to Singapore must be sponsored by either a Singapore-based company or a Singapore Government Agency, which will file an application for a SafeTravel Pass on behalf of the applicant.

As of Aug 10, only business or official travellers sponsored by a Singapore Government agency may submit applications to use the Singapore-Malaysia RGL.

“With low-cost airlines, it’s not all bad news. I think for these airlines in this part of the world, we are dealing with point-to-point travel and it’s not long-haul either. There is still a zone of familiarity and trips are of a shorter duration,” Wilson says, believing the low-cost segment would recover faster than expected.

“I don’t think any airline or any business for the matter had expected the seriousness the outbreak imposed. Previous crises were either regionally contained or short-lasting. This has had a longer lasting effect than what any of us had expected,” he emphasised.

According to Wilson, companies wouldn’t have had the necessary fire power in cash and strength to ride over the outbreak, stressing the unprecedented position the virus had left industries in. “Even if any companies did have, shareholders would have revolted and demanded in the way of dividends,” he joked.

The circuit breaker period has also allowed for the airline to invest in digitalisation. The airline which had invested in Workplace prior to the outbreak, a communication tool owned by Facebook proved to be a beneficial investment during the outbreak as it had improved communications among employees and management greatly. What was once considered optional has since become a necessity, Wilson says.

“We also made investments in the customer service side of things. Right now, we just have to figure out how to make them better and to build stronger relationships,” he says. In order to minimise surface and physical contact, passengers are highly encouraged to check-in online via the website or the Scoot’s mobile app.

As for the post-Covid outlook, Wilson says the competitive landscape might be a little different in coming years. “The pre-Covid scene  saw an oversupply capacity which was based on an optimistic view of the future. The outbreak has since recalibrated that view,” he says.

And as for the future of the airline, Wilson optimistically says he is confident better days lie ahead.  “There is a national interest on the success growth of the group and from both a  business model perspective and a balance sheet perspective, we are in a good position,” he concludes.

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