In the crowded market of Myanmar airlines, one carrier has got its niche successfully carved out as the country’s premium airline. Behind its wheels is Jeremy Kingston, the man in charge of overall operations of FMI Air.
Hailing from the United Kingdom, Kingston has worked in Kazakhstan, Fiji and Vanuatu before landing in Myanmar. The COO of FMI Air talks to Sondang Grace Sirait about his childhood in Manchester – which included a stint as a ball boy for Manchester United Football Club and training in classical music – and his work goals.
In this relatively small market of two to three million domestic passengers with fierce competition, what’s your strategy to keep ahead of the game?
We don’t hide behind the fact that we’re a premium airline. We offer service that we believe is beyond anything that other fellow aviators do. They’re not competitors. There’s a market for all to share. How big a bite is the pie we have? It’s how you make yourself different, how you make yourself attractive. We’re looking for people who want the level of service we want to give, the top 10-15 percent of the market, like we did with Nay Pyi Taw with the business travelers, but we also realise we want to support the local market. The chairman is very keen on supporting local economy in trying to progress. We make sure we’re putting ourselves in a place where others can follow, but we’re always ahead. We’re always reinventing ourselves.
How do you see your role as COO?
The COO’s role is to personally take responsibility. I have a great team of both locals and expatriate managers. We strive each day to try and develop our staff and we all have a remit. I have a remit, all my expat directors have a remit, and that’s to find our replacement. Our chairman eventually wants to have local managers, which is what we’re here for. How long it takes, it’s up to us and up to the situation we’re in.
The level of experience which we have to manage toward that transition is very, very high. We have a corporate director who’s been in aviation for 35 years, who was head of customer service for Emirates for 20 years. Our safety director is a pilot. He’s been flying for 35 years, I think, and he’s still flying now. And he was the head of the UK Safety Board. I personally picked these individuals to make sure they fit with what we’re trying to do.
We now have four local engineers whom we’ve trained from nothing up to be able to sign an aircraft off on the CRJs. And there’s never been a CRJ in Myanmar. We’re developing the local talent to be able to do that. Our airports director is a local Myanmar lady. Our commercial director is local. Our airworthiness and compliance director is a local lady. The new head of quality is going to be a local gentleman. So we do recognise that talent and we try to promote and sustain that.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Very personal. When I’m at work, I’m extremely serious. It doesn’t come across as that sometimes, but I live and breathe the job. And that is my job, seven days a week. That doesn’t matter. Sometimes you can say it overwhelms me, but all the staff know that they can call me, message me or email me or come to my house if they have an issue.
How do you achieve work-life balance?
For me, everyone has to have a break. In this industry, work doesn’t finish at half past five on a Friday. The airline flies seven days a week. You have to have the right resource to give you a respite and fortunately I have some managers, and I can say I’m unavailable this weekend, but you do have time to turn off. I’ve got a very supportive partner who understands my role and I try not to take work home and we spend quality time together when we can.
What do you do in your spare time?
When I used to live in the UK, I was a fanatic motorcyclist. The reason for that was once you got your helmet on, you can’t answer the phone, you can’t speak to anyone. I used to spend hours just riding around the UK. Here you’re not allowed to. I like socialising and going out for a nice meal. You can watch the English football on Saturdays, which is great. I drive in Yangon. I don’t have a driver. I find it therapeutic, because you have to concentrate so hard, you can’t think of anything much.
How did you get started in the aviation industry?
I trained as an opera singer. That was my vocation. My father was a vicar when he was alive. I sang in the choir and then I went to study music. As all musicians do, they spend their free time at the bar. I used to work in a bar. There were three gentlemen that used to come in, they were accountants. My father had a living in the northwest but then moved to the southwest of England. These guys told him, “This company we work for is moving everything down to Devon. There’ll be jobs down there.” It was a very small airline. I went for an interview there and started working there. I used to count spare parts up on a big old calculator. That’s how I got into aviation. I was getting married and there was a job coming up in operations, which was more money, so I applied and never looked back. I learned everything those days. I did all the aviation courses just by talking to people and reading a lot. That was how I progressed really.
What trend do you see happening in the domestic aviation industry?
I think the challenge for Myanmar aviation in the next four or five years is to be here in four or five years. There’s so much competition, the growth is quite slow. I think there are opportunities which will help us to continue to grow, but we have to be very smart, very dynamic and flexible. We’ll never compromise our safety. FMI has got a great future, I believe. There are going to be challenges, for sure, but I think the local domestic market is something that will have to contract in order to survive.