Hiranjan Aloysius, CEO, dnata 

Hiranjan Aloysius: Setting Effective Leadership Benchmarks 

Airline transfer is one of the biggest transport industries, and it contributes majorly to the economy of any country. The industry includes huge risks when it comes to managing airline services. It takes extreme accuracy to operate and supervise the activities associated with air travel.

Managing an aviation service-providing company is a job full of complex responsibilities. It comprises tasks like aircraft ground handling, cargo transport, travel and tourism management, and flight catering services.

In the following interview, Hiranjan Aloysius, the CEO of dnata—an aviation service provider company founded in Dubai, UAE—shares valuable insights and details into the challenges he faced thus far in his journey within the industry.

Give us a brief overview of your 15+ years’ journey at dnata and tell us what inspired you to venture into the airline and aviation space. 

My journey in the aviation industry began in 2002, working with the UK-based Alpha Airports Group PLC as the Regional Commercial Director for Asia and Board Representative for Asian joint ventures. These roles focused on driving airport retail across Asian airports, giving me great insight into airport operations and dealing with the various stakeholders that influence aviation.

In 2005 I relocated to Australia on a mission from the shareholder to drive the growth and profitability of Alpha’s latest acquisition of an Australian inflight catering company – alpha flight services, now known as dnata catering.

With four inflight caterers in the country at the time, this business was very much the minnow when compared with the largest – Qantas’ catering business, Q Catering. Sixteen years on, and dnata catering is now by far Australia’s largest and most admired inflight catering and retail partner.

While I have worked with multiple shareholders over the years, we have been part of dnata since 2007. Since acquiring Alpha, dnata has very much encouraged us with investment and supported us to achieve the exponential growth seen. I’m blessed to have had a diverse career. In what feels like a previous life, I started my working life as an Auditor at Ernst and Young, worked in a few different businesses, and then worked my way up to this role at dnata.

Once I started with dnata, I knew I had found the right industry for me. The challenges presented while working in the aviation industry motivates me to do better, to be better, and to push the boundaries. Aviation has constantly challenged and encouraged new learnings for me, initially driving huge growth, to now dealing with the devastation COVID-19 has wreaked on our industry.

Tell us more about dnata, its vision, and the key aspects of its stronghold in the air travel services niche.

dnata was founded in 1959, growing from a team of five people in the United Arab Emirates to more than 34,000 people across 35 countries. We’re proud leaders across the full spectrum of air services and travel – from consumer and corporate travel services to airport operations, inflight catering and retail, cargo, and logistics management.

While we are a business that continues to grow, we’re more focused on our vision To be the most admired air and travel services provider. We place delivering an admirable, consistent, and high-quality service above trying to be the biggest in anything we do. Growth will come if we focus on the right things within our business and across our customers and those, we do business with.

From a leadership perspective, what is your opinion on the impact of the pandemic on the global air travel services sector, and how did you help dnata overcome the challenges rooting from the pandemic?

Leadership has been critical, and, like all organisations and business leaders, the pandemic and its impacts continue to test how we approach the ongoing challenges whilst navigating our way out of the storm. COVID-19 has certainly been a leadership test beyond what most have faced in the past.

In Australia, we were hit hard. Initially, we had to fight to survive. Leveraging the relationships with unions, suppliers, airports, and of course, our customers helped get us through the survival stage to emerge stronger.

We also used the opportunity to pivot and innovate whilst simultaneously working through right-sizing the business, anticipating lower demand in the medium term – a heartbreaking and difficult task by any measure, made harder when you stop to think about the time, investment, and teamwork it had taken to build us to the position we were in.

But, whilst our business has suffered immensely, the impacts have been felt most intensely by our people. We identified this early on in the pandemic and have remained committed to communicating with, reassuring, and providing support for our people.

Continually providing reassurance and a sense of stability to our people has been challenging when so much is out of our control. But, despite the hardship they have faced, our people remain dedicated to our business and our future. It is the spirit and resilience of our people and the belief that we will emerge stronger that truly inspired me.

What is your opinion on the necessity for airlines/aviation companies to align their offerings with newer technological developments, especially when it comes to catering to the ever-evolving customer preferences?

Technology is driving significant change in our industry, particularly in providing more choice and flexibility to travellers while giving airlines the capability to tap into more data, increase ancillary revenue and efficiency across their operations.

For us, that means elevating our expertise across technology and moving from supplier/ customer relationships to more of a partnership approach. We’re working with firms outside of our industry to help drive innovation, whether it be through technology trials like those we conducted in Europe with iFleat and takeaway.com or our engagement with start-up incubators across the world.

In Australia, we’re working with several technology providers to lift the food retail experience onboard and to provide the ability for passengers to book destination activities while onboard. Understanding technology and investing in it is critical.

What efforts did you and your team at dnata take during the pandemic to sustain operations and ensure the safety of your employees at the same time?

We’ve had to be incredibly flexible and rely heavily on the trust, commitment, and willingness of our employees. We had to make many hard decisions to right-size our cost base, but we never compromised on safety. Our people have dealt with a multitude of challenges, from complete changes in how we allocate work and roster shifts to retraining for new roles and dealing with long-term stand-downs.

Continued training is key, particular with irregular schedules and lengthy time out of business. We’ve invested heavily in training and engagement, both in the workplace and digitally, while employees are at home stood down. We’ve also sustained operations by increasing our business outside our core industry, launching direct-to-consumer food sales, and increasing what we do with Government and other facility operators.

If given a chance, what is the one thing that you would change about the air travel services business ecosystem?

We’ve seen through the pandemic that the services ecosystem isn’t understood nor appreciated by some Governments in a time of crisis. Our ground handling and catering operations are critical to the ability of airlines to operate, yet the support for these operators to stay in business and retain employees has been limited.

There’s a role for airlines and air services providers to tell a more connected story and for services providers to promote their value more strongly, which is an ongoing task.

As an established leader, what would be your advice to the budding entrepreneurs aspiring to venture into the air travel services space?

The aviation industry is a complex ecosystem of different players, all playing a role in ensuring travellers can travel safely, on time, and with an experience they value. It is a challenging but rewarding industry, where no year is the same as the last. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. However, if you are a disruptor at heart, there are always areas that are ripe for further innovation, and, coupled with ever-increasing expectations from travellers, there are gaps for great ideas.

Focusing on building unique products, focusing on safety, building, and leveraging relationships with key stakeholders, understanding the ecosystem will help build success, but above all, be passionate about your product and people. Aviation is an industry that is full of people who are passionate about the industry, no matter how tough things look at times.

In your opinion, what could be the future of the air travel services sector post the pandemic? And how are you strategising your organisation’s operations for that future?

Technology will continue to be key, both in respect of product development and innovation and in guiding the right talent mix right for the future. We’ll see more efficient airport experiences, connected experiences across all traveller interactions, and technology-led disruption – as we’ve seen across every other industry.

Flexibility increased as a result of COVID-19, and this will change long-term expectations, from ticketing to meal orders and other travel products. While we’ve seen the consolidation of major, traditional industry players over the past ten years, we’ll likely see more entrepreneurial, start-up businesses looking to add value in specific parts of the aviation and travel industries.

Our focus is to be on the front end of innovation, strengthening partnerships with our key customers, diversifying our revenue streams, using technology to keep unit economics at the right levels, and seeking opportunities to grow our core business in Asia as we continue to build a strong culture in an integrated organisation.