Being placed in charge of a company that has been losing money since 2005 isn’t exactly the kind of dream job that most people have in mind. However Tero Taskila has always relished a good challenge. After all, the Finn, who was previously the Chief Commercial Officer of Latvian competitor airBaltic, lives by the motto: “I want to have frustration and excitement in good balance.”
There’s certainly been no shortage of both and since assuming the position last June, Taskila has been busy overseeing the restructuring of the airline and introducing initiatives to increase the number of routes that it serves and the frequencies of its flights. And while there are plans to introduce long-haul services in the future, for now, Estonian Air is concentrating its efforts on becoming a leading regional airline and establishing a strong network in the Baltic States, Nordic countries and Russia.
Changing the Rules of Engagement
Among the initiatives adopted by Estonian Air last year, one of the most successful has been its AirScore loyalty program, which not only brought a fresh spin to the concept but also piqued Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards to win a Mega Award for the world’s best social media marketing program.
What makes the AirScore loyalty program unique is that it rewards subscribers for spreading the word about the airline – they do not have to fly with the airline to participate in the program at all. Subscribers can earn points simply by signing up for the Facebook app and sharing the information published on its wall. Furthermore, they also earn points when their friends join AirScore and participate in the program as well. These points can then be redeemed for flight discounts as well as other airline rewards such as free lounge access, depending on the subscriber’s level of membership.
The response has been turning heads, to say the least. Within the first 10 days of its soft launch, it had recorded two million impressions, a feat which Taskila admits was “not something they could even expect or dream about”. Among the other features it plans to implement in the future is one that allows it to integrating analytics so that it can be used as a sales tool as well.
Small and Innovative Wins the Race
In many ways, being a small airline has been a boon for Estonian Air. For a start, it’s given it the courage to go where bigger airlines fear to tread. “As a small airline, you always have to do something different and innovative to be noticed,” says Taskila, adding that one of the benefits of being headquartered in Estonia (or the land of Skype, as the country is fondly known) is that they are situated in a hotbed of talent and innovation.
And ‘innovation’ is clearly a key part of the brand’s credo. Among the other initiatives that it has introduced are the Chefs on Board campaign, which was launched last summer, and a Skype check-in service for passengers traveling to Moscow. In the case of the former, what distinguished it from the culinary programs adopted by bigger airlines was the fact that it actually hosted a chef from a leading Estonian restaurant on one of its flights every month. The menu served on that flight was then served on its other flights for a month after its launch. For the airline, apart from improving the flight experience, it was also a way to promote the country’s cuisine and produce. So popular was the program that at one point, its Net Promoter Score (NPS) was higher than that for the iPhone 4S.
Though the latter is still in its early testing phase, the Skype check-in video service it is offering to travelers heading for Moscow is another example of how the airline is hoping to improve the convenience of its customers’ flight experience. Not only do they get to beat the queue they also have the option of talking to a real airline representative to ask questions about their flight.
Things certainly look promising for Estonian Air. Not only is it based in one of the most financially stable countries in the European Union, it is also one of the fastest growing airlines in Europe. Taskila is quick to add that there is nothing artificial about this growth. “It was the result of Estonian businesses being more successful globally and also the attractiveness of Tallinn as a destination. We don’t see any slowing down in demand in that respect so that’s a very good starting point for us.”
While it may be tempting for an airline to join an alliance to strengthen its network and brand, Taskila tells us that Estonian Air has no plans to do that just yet. “I’ve always said that if you want to get married, you need to get pretty first,” he jokes. “Although we are very pretty a bride already, we are also a bride with our own ambitions and those are not ready to be piped out. We still have a lot of things we want to achieve before joining an alliance.”
Among other things, Estonian Air plans to introduce a new aircraft to its fleet as well as a new plane livery this year in its bid to improve its overall customer experience. “To be more successful in 2012, we need to get things out of the door faster, be more flexible and be closer to customers.”
But how does an airline maintain that close relationship with its customers when it needs to expand in order to keep up with the competition? There’s no easy answer to this question but for now, Estonian Air is focusing on delivering on the promises it’s made to be the most convenient, innovative, trustworthy and “positively surprising” airline in the region.
Taskila has already said that he will be pushing his team to work even harder this year and he has high hopes that the results will outweigh their efforts. “The benefit of being small is that we can be extremely fast and flexible. We have a very low cost base and a team full of passionate people who want to see results immediately. With a small airline, they are able to do just that.”
To listen to Tero’s full interview, please play the podcast below.
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