The Big Interview: ‘I’m always ready to move ... I’m not someone who stays in the same place’
Flybe chief operating officer Roy Kinnear, from Keady, tells Margaret Canning why he left the sunny Seychelles behind to work back in NI
He’s been in the job of chief commercial officer at Flybe for just four weeks — and Co Armagh man Roy Kinnear vows the energy he’s displayed so far won’t be flagging. “I do not get comfortable and I do not do the status quo at all. My energy levels, my thinking outside the box, will be the same in six to 12 to 18 months as it is now.
“This is me as a personality. I drive hard, I’m probably not the easiest person to work for because I do have very demanding levels, I understand that.
“But it’s all done for the right reason — for the benefit of the company or for the benefit of the individual.”
The airline services 15 UK destinations from Belfast’s City Airport, running eight aircraft and employing 200 people.
On a visit to Belfast — one of regional airline Flybe’s top three UK locations — Roy marvels over the number of people he’s met on his trip who recall him from earlier in his career.
He vows not to flinch from making changes if they are required, and has a mantra of “flex your public offering to what the public want” when it comes to routes and their frequency. “Sometimes your demand from Belfast to London is focused on about Monday and Tuesday, coming back in opposite direction on Wednesday and Thursday ... and leisure demand is more on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. A good airline takes that into account instead of being the same product, Monday to Sunday, 52 weeks a year — you flex your public offering.
“It may be on Wednesday you have fewer flights and Friday you have more. We should be going through that checklist to make sure it’s as good as it can be for Belfast.
“That will give us a better chance of success and ultimately to grow. You’re going to see that over the weeks and months ahead.”
He started out in the now-defunct British Midland, after a degree in economics and statistics at Ulster University in Jordanstown.
And his latest move to Flybe has meant a move from the ostensibly more appealing location of the Seychelles, where he was chief executive for two-and-a-half years of Air Seychelles.
“People do say to me. You gave up Seychelles for Flybe? But I was CEO of an airline which has 12 aircraft. Looking forward to the next three to four years were we going to buy another 10 or 20 aircraft? No, because being placed geographically in the middle of the Indian Ocean, that would have been completely the wrong thing to do, and financially would not be right.
“But a company like Flybe, with 81 aircraft and flying to 78 UK and European cities — you know, Flybe did their homework on Roy Kinnear but I did my homework on Flybe as well. It would have been silly not to.”
After working for BMI, he moved to Bahrain, then United Arab Emirates and India, before the Seychelles job came up. He’s worked for Etihad Airways, Gulf Air and Jet Airways.
He’s never afraid of change. “Moving from the Seychelles was the right move for reasons out there so the fact that it’s geographically different of the world with a different climate — it’s irrelevant to somebody like myself.
“I think every individual is different. For some people, things like that may have a large part to play, but for me, no.
“I’ve always been open-minded that I need to be flexible enough to move to wherever I think the right move will be. I’m not somebody who will always stay stuck in the same place and go ‘whatever I want has to fit around me’.”
One of the first big projects during his first year at Flybe will be overhauling its technology.
“Flybe will be changing our technology platform in October this year.
“We need to because the world diversifies. We’ve taken it so far but we need to improve our reservations and we need to improve our airport check-in systems to make it easier to book and easier to fly.
“The platform we’ll be using, Amadeus, will bring with it other spin-off opportunities which we’ve never had before.”
That will bring particular benefits for business customers.
“We’ll give them recognition that they’re important to us. We’re loyal back to them and we recognise that by giving them an easier front-end booking platform that’s personalised for their company and business and we will have that from October onwards.
“It’s the single-largest technology investment Flybe has made in its history.
“It’s a huge investment. For most airlines it’s something you would do once a decade, not just the investment but the upheaval in an organisation.”
He says working in the Seychelles, a popular holiday destination in the Indian Ocean, wasn’t as idyllic as you might imagine. “You don’t have to Photoshop it — it is geographically beautiful. But it is a hard place to work. Being an island, being a small place like that, everybody knows everybody and everybody had a view on the national airline. As such the people aspects of running an airline like that are probably way above running an airline like Flybe.”
He acknowledges he’s a workaholic and doesn’t get back home too often.
“I was born in Keady and my mother still lives there. Family and relations are centred around Keady, Co Armagh and Co Monaghan. I have one sister, who teaches in Lurgan and lives in Co Monaghan, who has the patience of Job compared to myself.”
Roy says he received a good education at the Royal School in Armagh but that rugby was often a bigger priority than the books.
“You look back on it and think should I have spent more time academically as I lived, breathed and ate rugby at that stage. You probably trained twice a week and played once or twice a week. You played it in all types of weather but it made you a stronger person.”
He says there was nothing in his family background which would foretell his own adventure in aviation. His parents’ philosophy was “being incredibly supportive and wanting to give their children the best possible opportunity to move forward with their life, which they probably did not have themselves”.
Roy has a 23-year-old daughter and 34-year-old stepson, who are both back in Abu Dhabi.
His wife Fiona is now back in Exeter with Roy. Their three dogs are “the centre of the family”. “The dog walking is where I get out to clear my head.”
But he’s pragmatic about the moves he’s made. “I’ve been lucky, I think, in my three decades that I’ve probably changed role to something bigger, wider, using a different skillset every two-and-a-half to three years. The industry has been good to me, I’d say.”
And he has plenty of ideas for Flybe. “I honestly believe there’s a lot of ingredients there. It’s got a great network but I think there are changes we can make to strengthen it further. I do have views on how we widen our name. I do think Flybe is well-known but for my desires, I don’t think it’s enough of a household name. I think there’s more we can do with that.”
Flybe has been in the headlines in Northern Ireland for the wrong reasons, including the emergency landing in Scotland of a flight from Birmingham to Belfast after a technical fault.
“Flybe has 81 aircraft, 56 Q400s out there,” says Roy. “It is absolutely not an excuse. Things happen. The important thing is you manage them. There was that unfortunate incident where we diverted and landed in Belfast. It’s not something that happens every week. For people who are on it, it’s an unfortunate incident and memory for them. We as a company need to make sure we follow through on the learnings from that. That’s one isolated incident and touch wood we hope there isn’t another episode like that or worse.”
He believes the airline is an untold success story.
“How many people know we fly to 15 cities directly out of Belfast, apart from the obvious like London and Manchester. I think that’s a hidden gem.”
And he says he’s in touch with the realities of the business. “I’m not the guru sitting in the ivory tower. I’m here, I’ll actually be speaking to trade later on. Are we flying to the right cities? Are we flying the right number of flights every day? Should we be flying double-daily?
“I’ll be listening to that feedback to work out what should be our right network.”