George Cooper is a very happy man. Not only is he working in an industry he adores, he is also the man at the controls of Kuwait’s first privately-owned premium airline, Wataniya Airways. The new airline, which comes into service in January next year, aims to give Kuwaitis the luxury, comfort and level of service they enjoy at home, while travelling around the region.
Larger seats, more legroom, and impeccable and attentive service are just some of the qualities which Wataniya will be bringing to Kuwaiti travellers, and in a world where new airlines tend to be low-cost services, Wataniya will be a refreshing change.
The service is not only unique for the Gulf, but anywhere in the world, as it is the only short-haul premium airline to be launched globally in over 10 years. “This is a unique airline and I don’t know of any other current full service airline start-up in the world,” says Scottish-born Mr Cooper. “Silverjet is probably close to our service, but they are a long-haul service and specialize in Business class only. I think the closest airline to what we are doing, but not at the same level of premier service as us, is Virgin America.”
The former British Airways pilot, with a long and distinguished managerial career in the aviation industry, joined the board of Kuwait National Airways - the parent company of Wataniya - earlier this year as Chief Executive Officer. While he has not launched an airline before, he has run a number of airlines within the BA group, completely reconstructing one; was a member of the BA board; and was chairman of a number of other airlines.
“I’m so lucky to have this chance, as everyone who works in the airline industry at senior level dreams of having the chance to start and run their own airline. It rarely happens and it is even rarer now as most of the start-ups these days are low-cost airlines offering the same services, whether they are in Dallas, Luton or Kuala Lumpur,” he says. “I am very fortunate to be given the chance to start and run an airline where there is a clear need for such a business to be created.”
Wataniya was born in 2005 when the Kuwaiti government decided to liberalize aviation in the country. They issued three new licences for three new airlines: a cargo service, Load Air; the low-cost airline Jazeera; and a premium service airline. This licence was granted to KIPCO and they, along with other corporate investors, put up the money to create Kuwait National Airways. Following an IPO in April 2006, KIPCO now owns 30 percent of the service, with the remaining 70 percent being owned by a number of other private investors. The company will be listed on the Kuwait Stock Exchange this year.
Originally Wataniya thought they would only start flying in 2011, the earliest date that they thought aircraft would be available, but when three Airbus 320s unexpectedly became available from January 2009, their plans were changed accordingly.
“The government felt there was a need to create this airline and recent research proves this is right,” says Mr Cooper. “Look at the lifestyle of the people who live in Kuwait – the luxury shops and hotels, and the level of affluence there is in society. People are used to a certain level of service and quality of life, and this applies everywhere until they decide to fly. There, the choice is very limited, even from the full-service airlines,” he says. “The schedules of other airlines, such as Emirates, are geared to their home markets, not the Kuwaiti market, so you can easily fly to Dubai at 3am, but if you have a business meeting there at 9am, you do not have much of a choice.”
At the start Wataniya will be flying to cities in the Middle East and Gulf, west and south of Kuwait, but this may well expand later depending on the opportunities which arise. The flights will all be during the day as the planes are not intended for overnight flights, says Mr Cooper.
An airline is driven by three key areas – schedule, product and price, he explains. “Our schedule will be driven by Kuwaiti travel needs. We are going to be point to point. We are aiming at traffic that originates in Kuwait, so for a business day in Dubai or a vacation in Cairo, this will be the consideration for our schedule,” he says.
As far as the actual product is concerned, Wataniya will have 26 seats in their Business Class section and 96 in the Economy section – but they will be significantly bigger than similar classes on other airlines. Because of the big seat pitch, the airlines will only have 122 seats in the cabin, as compared to 145 seats in the A320s, which are run by Air France or BA. “This is the lowest density seating on an A320 of any scheduled airline in the world,” he explains.
In the forward, or Business cabin, the 44-inch seat pitch matches a number of other airlines’ First Class seats, and in the rear section the 34-inch seat pitch is again very generous, when 30-32 inches is the norm.
And it is not only the seat pitch which will differentiate it from other airlines. “We will not be calling our rear section Economy, as it is not going to be like everyone else’s economy,” says Mr Cooper. “It will be very comfortable and without parallel in world aviation right now for short-haul airlines.”
The in-flight food will be of the highest quality and will be served on proper china and glass throughout the whole plane. “The in-flight entertainment system, the seats themselves, the fact that you can use your mobile and Blackberry during the journey, is, I believe, what the market wants from an airline journey – and especially the highly discerning and sophisticated Kuwaiti traveller.”
Where service is concerned, the airline will have the highest ratio of crew to passengers on any short-haul service in the world. “We know that attentiveness is a vital element of service,” he says.
One challenging area facing the young company is how to match the ground service with the one offered in the air. “Frequently, the ground element is the worst part of the journey and we are working hard with our colleagues in the Department of Transport and Civil Aviation to try to find ways of making the journey through the airport as easy as possible for Wataniya passengers,” says Mr Cooper.
“Obviously we cannot and would not want to change security and immigration procedures, but there are other parts that we can change,” he says, adding that the company will have a lounge air side for all passengers and not just Business Class travellers.
“Our product has been built very carefully on our understanding of what Kuwaiti people expect. Pricewise, I’m not going to pretend that we will be the cheapest airline on the block, but you don’t get a Range Rover for the price of a small car.
“People here understand the value of quality. If we hit these key areas, then we will do well. That’s what business is all about, and we aim to become the first choice airline in Kuwait from day one.”
George Cooper’s passion for his new role is infectious. “I think jet fuel gets into your blood and you just get drawn back into the industry – it’s seductive,” he says as he explains his love for the airline business. “There is no other industry like it – it is capital intensive as well as being a customer service, and it can be affected every day by external forces ranging from the weather to security changes and macro economic factors. It’s a very challenging industry.”
He knew from a young age that he wanted to fly planes, and he trained as a pilot with British Airways before he experienced the glamorous world of the airline pilot. “I enjoyed the experience. Flying for an airline is superb and travelling, seeing new places and understanding different cultures was fantastic.”
After a few years at the controls, he realized there was more to airlines than simply flying and took the opportunity to become a manager with British Airways in the mid-1980s. At the time, he was responsible for cargo at Heathrow airport. He stopped flying for seven years and travelled the world, living in London, Hong Kong and Germany during this time. But the jet fuel in his blood led him back to the cockpit and he flew again, combining it with the post of Flight Operations Quality Development Manager.
From here, the route took him ever higher to become Regional manager of BA’s UK domestic routes, then managing director of BA regional and the regional General Manager for the UK before joining the board of directors. In 2000 he left to start an eProcurement business and then went to Geneva to work for SITA, the airline communication and technical provider where he started their on-air business.
“I have a real passion for the industry which includes flying,” he explains. “I don’t fly now, I don’t have the time but also when you have flown for a living, pleasure flying is a totally different experience.”
While he is the first member of his family to join the aviation industry, several generations of his relatives were involved with transport, starting with his great-great-grandfather, who was a pony express rider in Scotland, delivering the mail on horseback from Glasgow to the remote West Highlands of Oban and Fort William. His grandfather was a tram driver in Glasgow, while his father was a lecturer in a technical college, teaching boys to be motor mechanics.
But while he keeps the family’s love of transport alive, his son has opted out of the world of travel and works in banking.
First published in Men's Passion issue #6 September 2008