By Nathan Morley
A BRAND new local airline could be flying within weeks, if operational permits are rubber stamped by the government.
TUS Airways is hoping to take off on December 1st, launching short-hop routes overlooked or ignored by the big regional carriers.
Barely eight months old, TUS – an acronym for ‘The Ultimate Schedule’ – appears to be the most ambitious start-up in local aviation in years.
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Mail, Michael Amprikidis, Head of Operations Support and deputy manager of TUS outlined the plans for the new venture.
“This is an entirely different operation,” Amprikidis said.
“We have hired the best crew, pilots and ground personnel – they all have a lot of years of experience. This is a brand new concept of a turbo-prop airline operating in Cyprus.”
Their strategy is to pull in business and leisure travellers looking for frequent departures to regional destinations including Beirut, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Rhodes, Kos, Eilat, Samos and Karpathos.
The airline plans to serve 12 destinations in winter and 16 during the summer months.
Most of their flights will operate around peak rush hours between 7am and 7pm to keep connection times tight for business travellers.
For the past few weeks their slim, white-painted passenger plane, smaller than the familiar commercial airliners, has been roaring off the runway at Larnaca on a series of trial runs and demo flights.
The very efficient, twin-engined SAAB 340 turboprop can hold 34 passengers and operate medium-range journeys. Amprikidis says simplicity, safety and speed are the key components to the project – with no-fuss quick check-in, e-ticketing and no lengthy queues.
In less than an hour, the SAAB can touch down at Tel Aviv, load another batch of passengers, and whistle back to Larnaca.
“We are counting on this high frequency; the time from check-in to boarding will be a very short period of time. And of course, all of our destinations are regional, so one to one and a half hours flying time away. It is this factor that enables us to perform a high-frequency schedule and to serve some destinations two to four times a day,” he says.
The idea is to offer competitive fares on a busy schedule of regional routes, while gradually adding new destinations, and with bilateral and business relations between Cyprus and neighbouring countries flourishing the airline hopes to have a customer base ready to fly.
“We didn’t have any particular problem in setting up this airline; the difference was that it is a private company, so you have to take care of the commercial aspects before you do anything.”
In early October TUS was granted an air operator certificate from the department of civil aviation, with its commercial air transport licence still pending.
In an interview last week, Transport Minister Marios Demetriades sounded enthusiastic about the project.
“As the government, we are working hard with all agencies like the Cyprus Tourism Organisation to bring as many planes as we can to Cyprus so we obviously approve such a move. The new airline also gives more options to people in Cyprus wanting to fly out,” Demetriades said.
As it stands, prices for a one-way ticket will range from €69 to €169, depending on destination.
Most of the staff, including Amprikidis, are former employees of the now-defunct Cyprus Airways, which ceased operations in January. The national carrier shut down after an EU decision it must repay over €65m in illegal state aid.
Despite the complexities of getting an airline off the ground, TUS has a full team of pilots, flight attendants and ground operations staff.
Gabriel Helen, one of the team of four flight attendants, says TUS will offer a simple but stylish on-board experience.
“The best thing about these aircraft is the flight, you can see the whole journey,” says Helen, explaining that the plane flies at around 20,000 ft, rather than the usual altitudes above 33,000 ft.
Pilots David Carlsson and Martin Andersson both relocated to Cyprus from Sweden, where they had been piloting aircraft on northern European and Scandinavia routes.
“It’s a challenge, it’s exciting,” says Carlson, who is confident of success. “We have been determined to make this happen.”
Amprikidis said that Europeans own the majority of the company’s stock adding that “there are also American investors”.
“The major shareholder is European and there are also other American investors as well. The funding of the company is primarily from these private investors. The aircraft, the personnel need a big financial backup, and fortunately the investors are very enthusiastic about this whole project and the concept of a Cyprus-based airline.”
The company hopes their planes will soon become a familiar sight on local runways, with plans for rapid expansion over the next 12 months.
“We will eventually, before the end of next year, have eight aircraft. Two of them will be 50 seater SAAB-2000s; these are very fast, flying at almost the speed of a jet. Taking in to account the short boarding, trips will actually be shorter than that of a jet,” Amprikidis added.