From Uber To Airline: How Lift Is Embracing On Demand Travel

You might think that a mash-up between Uber and an airline would involve some sort of flight hailing or on-demand service. While it’s not exactly like that, there are some key elements of Uber-ness that can be seen flowing through the roots of South African’s newest airline. CEO and co-founder of Lift Jonathan Ayache explained how.

Lift airline
Lift is bringing the essence of Uber to South African aviation. Photo: Lift

Bringing Uber influence to a startup airline

What would a long-sanding Uber director know about running an airline? Quite a lot, it seems, as that’s exactly the situation with South Africa’s newest airline, Lift.

Speaking at AviaDev Africa yesterday, CEO and co-founder of Lift Jonathan Ayache shed some light on the Uber influence and how it is benefitting Lift. However, it’s not quite as some might think, as he explained,

“The thing that everyone is interested in, especially as I moved into the aviation industry, is Uber, and how that’s going to fit in. The question everyone asks is, are we building an app to push a button so that a plane will come and fetch them. That’s not on the cards at the moment!”

While plane-hailing is a concept yet to take off (perhaps it will come with the rise in eVTOL operations), there are some key elements of Uber that Ayache has brought with him to Lift. He noted,

“I think what is interesting about Uber and about what it taught me was mainly around our view on the customer and putting the customer first in our approach to designing the airline. For me, that was the biggest thing.”

Lift airline
It’s not ride-hailing, but it’s everything else. Photo: Lift

Looking more closely at Lift, you can clearly see the Uber influence. The airline has an incredible amount of flexibility, operating aircraft under power-by-the-hour contracts, which means that if it’s not profitable to fly, it doesn’t have to. It’s not afraid to tentatively launch routes, and then to pull them back just as quickly if they don’t work out.

All this flexibility could cause issues for its passengers, however. But Ayache believes that Lift’s technology-led, customer-first mentality ensures this doesn’t happen. He recalls launching a route from Johannesburg to George, which was quickly followed by a spike in COVID cases in the Garden Route area, causing demand to George to fall off a cliff. While the airline rapidly rewound that route, it did so in a customer-friendly way, ensuring all passengers had alternative travel in place. He said,

“It was a great example very early on of our approach and that we can be flexible, but at the same time, make sure that customers are looked after and are not messed around.”

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Putting customers first is setting Lift apart. Photo: Lift

A whirlwind launch

The launch of Lift was an epic whirlwind, with just three months passed from conception to launch. Plenty of people would say that Ayache and his associates were crazy to try and launch an airline in such a short space of time, but this founder was confident he could make it happen.

Ayache was with Uber for seven years before he left to launch Lift. In the time he had been working there, he’d seen Uber grow from nothing to a business with tens of thousands of drivers ferrying millions of people around the continent. He said,

“Had you asked me if that was possible when I joined, I would have said absolutely not. But that’s what happened. That just shows you that just because it’s a crazy idea, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”

However, Ayache was quick to point out that you can’t just rush into projects like this without a solid plan behind you. He outlined his strategy for getting started with Lift, saying,

“You must have very big, audacious goals, but be very deliberate and tactical and data driven in how you approach that. I think that’s a lot of what I bring to the table at Lift.”

Lift airline
The airline went from concept to launch in just three months. Photo: Lift

Lift’s approach is incredibly technology-led, with a plethora of options to self-serve your needs without ever having to wait for the airline. Ayache is so confident in the ability of the airline to deliver best-in-class customer service with tech, it doesn’t even have a physical call center.

“Our focus is on solving problems, and we do that through email and inbound messaging, and we can do outbound calling where it’s necessary, but you don’t ever have to speak to someone. Either you can do it yourself online, and that’s what we’ve tried to put focus on, predominantly, or you can send us an email and within a couple of hours, you’ll have a response and it will be resolved.”

This customer focus was a notion that began with crowdsourcing the name and livery for the airline and continues through its operations today. That, coupled with industry-leading policies on things like ticket changes and fair fares, has set Lift up to be a great success in the South African market.

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