Last week Viva Airlines held their 10-year anniversary party – the unofficial historian of the airline couldn’t make it, perhaps because as per normal they were ahead of schedule as the actual date is today, May 25.
My own journey with Viva has now come to an end after the recent transaction; however, I will still be there supporting my amazing wife Tatiana as the Viva Foundation goes from strength to strength making a difference to 100,000s lives. This is the only airline charity in Colombia, in fact few exist in the region, and I will be one step behind when required.
It could easily have ended in tears and there were a lot shed along the way, fortunately most of them were of joy. There have been 7 CEOs but 3 stand out. Fred, who overcame an unimaginable personal tragedy to cut that ribbon 10 years ago, Barry ‘If you want to stop losing money, stop doing things that lose money’ and then the tall man himself, Felix, who joined an airline only to find his planes sitting on the ground soon after.
There have been so many other actors in this story but, through it all there was one constant, one calm hand on the tiller. Declan Ryan who will be cringing as he reads this, is a colossus in the airline world and don’t even get me started on his philanthropy, I will get to that another time.
With Europe, Singapore, Las Vegas, and Mexico conquered Colombia was next but it proved the biggest challenge. Unfavorable regulation, a favored son of an airline to compete with and volcanoes, to name just a few of the obstacles in the way. June 2012 was as dark as it gets for any company but through it all Dec never lost faith, which for many would have been the easy option.
There was dismay at the recent decision to cede control of Viva, to get into bed with Avianca as some saw it – an airline that they blamed for the extinction of others in the sector. But those comments were from those who had little idea of the structure of the deal. Avianca is no longer the Colombian flagship carrier of old, it is now in fact part of a UK holding company, which hopefully will be listed once again on both sides of the Atlantic. What those critics also didn’t live through were the dark days of 2020 – they didn’t walk in the shoes of a company which unlike its competitors chose not to hide in Chapter 11 but instead toughed it out, especially after pleas for help from the government fell on deaf ears.
As a person sat there throughout the pandemic the determination was incredible to see. There was no surrender, employees were protected, a way forward was found, if there is one thing that a low-cost airline is good at, it is being frugal. Slowly the situation improved and when the skies re-opened Viva rapidly gained market shares from the legacy airlines, who both misread the market and struggled to adapt to a new low cost environment.
Having brought air travel to millions who could only have dreamed before and changed the Colombian airline sector forever, Irelandia have earned the right to move the business in the direction they feel is best for everyone.
My thanks to Dec for the opportunity and my best wishes to all at Viva for next decade, this won’t be my last muse of the subject but in the meantime – don’t lose that irreverence that made you.
Aside from his role as head of international investment for the BVC Colombian stock exchange and providing a column on economics for Finance Colombia, Rupert Stebbings has served on the board of directors for Viva, and wrote the corporate biography, “The Viva Effect.”