Here’s how the chief executive officer kept the airline’s center of gravity in balance.
Ryna Brito, under 30 and overachieving, launched her own domestic boutique charter airline to provide travel experiences that go the extra mile around the Philippines.
Sunlight Air officially departed in December 2019, unaware that COVID-19 loomed just beyond the horizon.
“Everybody knows that the tourism industry is badly hit by the pandemic, so I guess I can say that operating and launching an airline just 3 months shy from the onset of the pandemic can be quite the challenge, even crazy for some,” Brito tells Lifestyle Asia.
The airline was prepared to fully operate in a non-pandemic world. Then all domestic flights were halted in March 2020 to contain the coronavirus spread. Consequently, their estimated time of arrival kept getting pushed back until one day, it became unclear.
But nothing brings resilience like commitment, according to the CEO.
“The resilience to constantly motivate your team despite having to take on pay cuts, the resilience to get an ounce of market share in an industry with very high barrier to entry, and most importantly, the resilience to be agile in responding to market needs during a once in a lifetime experience where not even the most brilliant of consultants can give you concrete solutions to,” Brito situates.
The team’s first course of action was to revisit everything: procedures, customer journey, and plans for marketing, business, and budget, among others.
Like the rest of the world, they expected that the situation would improve within two to three months. And when it didn’t, everyone sacrificed through cost-cutting measures.
The people behind the multimillion-dollar airline were by no means jet set. “Several of us took on pay cuts and forced leaves, and the company pivoted to a business that was unknown to us at that time. We shifted our business to cargo to keep the company liquid,” Brito reveals.
Making do with operating limitations, Sunlight Air deviated slightly from its course.
From nothing, they built on procedures, service providers, contractors, and clientele in Manila and Palawan to sustain their cargo business. Their payload would pay off in the long run. In 2021, the company earned P64 million in total revenue from cargo operations.
Soon enough, domestic tourism started opening up again and their angle of attack returned to passenger flights. Sunlight Air was now ready to operate in the COVID world.
“We had already prepared ourselves by creating customer-centric strategies to keep our passengers safe despite traveling through a global pandemic with our private lounges in Manila and Busuanga, reduced passenger load factors, and frequent sanitation of aircraft,” Brito toasts.
Moreover, the airline has opened a few new lanes since launch: San Vicente, Clark, Puerto Princesa, Cagayan de Oro, and Cebu. They will fly to new destinations this year, adding Camiguin to the list on March 17.
Sunlight Air had even reached their revenue targets in December 2021, earning enough to break even. The CEO notes that this is not the usual case for a two-year company in the aviation industry.
They also reached 90 percent passenger load factor in most of their March and April travel dates to both Busuanga and San Vicente.
Afforded by the overshoot in their success, the airline became the first and only one to fly in donations, doctors, and media into Siargao and Surigao during the first few days in the aftermath of Typhoon Odette in December 2021. The team went further by keeping in touch with locals to track their friends and families.
“This is how we do things at Sunlight Air; 200 percent commitment, never less,” Brito punctuates.
Sky’s the limit
This double-time dedication to vision, goals, and people is the CEO’s greatest lesson from running an airline that had nowhere to land except the airstrip of adaptation.
“All this energy and resilience really stem from my commitment to the company’s vision and goals: to be a gamechanger in the airline industry; to provide passengers with a unique and seamless travel experience, and the company’s greatest assets–its people. I am committed to them, because they are my team. They entrusted their long careers in the aviation industry with my vision and goals in building a new travel experience for us, Filipinos,” Brito explains.
She is hands-on and democratic when it comes to management style. This translates to her moving around chairs and tables when the team is undermanned for a large event at the resort, or responding to customer inquiries through socials and email on her way home.
No task is too small or out of her job description, including reading through comments, suggestions, and complaints from passengers to discuss with her respective department heads.
“It seems like micromanagement, but I believe in leading by example. And I hope that all my managers practice the same with their subordinates. Despite being very hands on, I do however believe that a good leader delegates well. There is no end to my list of things to do so I make sure I delegate and credit the right people for the work done,” Brito admits.
Sunlight Air even offers a mental health benefit where a partner service provider offers 10 therapy sessions a month for any employee who may need it. This is part of Brito’s mission to start the conversation on mental health stigma in hopes of inspiring at least one person to do the same.
Furthermore, she is quite optimistic with the tourism industry this year. Her friends who also work in travel share her observation on significant demand for March and April, with many planning ahead for their summer and Holy Week vacations.
There’s not much to say about the resilience of the businesses and people working in the travel and tourism sector, according to the pilot in command herself: “Our survival from the two years of COVID-19 with lockdowns and restrictions changing every so often speaks for itself already.”
She encourages young entrepreneurs with new and upcoming ventures to similarly take off.
Her first advice is to fly the kite first by dipping themselves into their dream venture without immediately giving up their full time job. That way, she says, they can keep their passion without placing too much pressure on the business.
“No venture is easy,” Brito advises.
“It will take patience and resilience. If you will not commit 200 percent, then don’t do it at all. Trust me, people can spot mediocrity.”
Photos AYA CABAUATAN, assisted by PATRICIA CABAUATAN
Art Director MARC YELLOW
Creative Direction PAOLO TORIO
Sittings Editor DONG RONQUILLO
Videographer EXCEL PANLAQUE
Makeup Artist LILIAN YEUNG
Hairstylist KIERLO VELASCO
Stylist JOLO BARTOLO, assisted by JUSTINE BAUTISTA
Shoot Coordination MAE TALAID