Airly has a difficult business model to pitch. The startup offers a fixed-rate, members-only, all-you-can-fly airplane service that caters to frequent travellers between Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra – which so far has been met with scepticism and doubt. But co-founders Alexander Robinson, Luke Hampshire and Ivan Vysotskiy have faced that doubt head-on.
“As we've engaged with prospective members, media, doubters and sponsors, we've found ourselves pivoting and ensuring we are nimble enough to change direction and adapt our plans,” says Robinson.
Though they’re relatively young – Robinson is 32 and Hampshire is 28 – Airly’s story isn’t one of childhood friends who always dreamed of starting an airline.
“Luke and I didn't know each other before August 2015,” says Robinson. The two had been independently looking at the idea of starting a service similar to California’s Surf Air when they discovered each other on LinkedIn. They connected, met, and not long after, they decided to start working together. Vysotskiy joined them not long after that.
“Setting up Airly hasn't been difficult from a logistical perspective,” says Robinson. The most difficult part has been ensuring that they deliver the same level of service from end to end.
Airly is sort of a transplant of Surf Air, which started in 2013, and Airly has watched the Californian company closely, coming to the conclusion that there are a number of routes in Australia that would benefit from a similar service.
I think people enjoy seeing a new entrant in the traditional aviation industry. Everyone has a travel frustration or gripe.
Sydney to Melbourne is the world’s fourth-busiest route, and the English-speaking world’s busiest, says Robinson. The distance and infrastructure means travelling on the ground is a hassle, and commercial air travel is over-capacity, so Airly sees itself as filling a niche in the market.
“We see Airly as positively disrupting the aviation industry. Airly is a complementary service to the aviation industry in that we are targeting a small segment of travellers, and delivering a differentiated service that large airlines can’t effectively scale down to offer,” he says.
Aviation has high costs, entrenched competitors and significant barriers to entry. But, as Robinson points out, although over time the technology, safety and systems have improved, the experience for the customer has become increasingly frustrating.
Airly hopes to use convenience and technology (you can book a flight a half hour before a plane leaves via an app) to improve service and carve out its niche in the market.
And if by improving inefficiencies in the market Airly helps the industry overall, that’s a win for travellers and companies alike.
“It's daunting starting up a disruptive business, so it helps that we've received support and encouragement from other disruptors, start-ups, co-working spaces and the public and media,” Robinson says.
Support has come at surprising times, too. A piece in the Australian Financial Review triggered a lot of public interest. “I think people enjoy seeing a new entrant in the traditional aviation industry,” says Robinson. “Everyone has a travel frustration or gripe.”
For now, the startup is focusing on its launch, but following that, it will be looking at similarly congested routes in Australia. It’s already found about 15 more potential routes, including Brisbane Adelaide and Tasmania, and if all goes well, it may also look into New Zealand and Asia.
Jan is a Sydney-based writer and editor whose work has been published in a stable of titles including the National Post, The Daily Planet and Edmonton Examiner. He is currently Editor at ShortPress.