Airside talks to Patricia Vasconcelos, managing director of Wiesbaden, Germany – based airport bus supplier COBUS Industries, about the priorities she has set for the company and how she expects COBUS to develop and expand for many years to come
Her and COBUS’s priorities can be summarised as sustainability and growth, Vasconcelos says. The company has been in business for more than 25 years already, and she is preparing for success for the next 25 years. Like all firms, it has seen good and bad years, Vasconcelos says, but it has developed and it has grown over those two and a half decades.
The first COBUS vehicle began operating at Switzerland’s Zurich International Airport in 1978, but when Vasconcelos joined the company in the summer of 2012 it was, she observes, still operating somewhat in the past. Continuing to rely on past strategies that had served it well in what had been up to then a somewhat conservative, unchanging market, fresh dynamism was needed alongside heightened market awareness and a flexibility to respond to customer requirements that were beginning to change on a far more regular basis.
In fact, over the last 10 years or so, there have been major changes in the airport bus segment, Vasconcelos points out, with customers now having some fundamentally different requirements of their bus suppliers. Hence her focus on sustainability and a long-term strategy to remain in that perceived position of market leader within the airport bus niche.
Meanwhile, growth is not just an ambition but a requirement in the business today, she says, if COBUS is to remain as the number one supplier of airport buses.
Those changing customer requirements relate in large part to the pressures that COBUS clients are themselves facing. Third-party airport service providers – the handlers responsible for busing passengers to their waiting aircraft – are feeling the pinch. With very narrow margins, they are looking to cut costs wherever they can.
And COBUS buses are not cheap. Of premium quality, there is a cost to be paid – a financial one. Perhaps the most significant change we have seen in the airline industry over recent decades has been the rapid development of the low-cost carriers (LCCs), the no-frills airlines that now carry so many passengers on point-to-point routes. They, by definition, work on narrow margins and must shave costs wherever they can and achieve efficiencies wherever possible. One possible way to do this is by simply carrying more passengers in each bus – and COBUS has the offerings to help (the COBUS 3000, flagship of the COBUS fleet, carries up to 112 people, for example).
The initial high cost of a COBUS vehicle is also an issue because of the short time spans that handlers can guarantee they will be operating at any given location. Many of their operating licences may extend only for a period of seven years or so – the high cost of a COBUS purchase may as a result seem prohibitive to those of a cautious nature. However, COBUS thinks it has an answer here too. The initial cost may be high, but the total cost of ownership (TCO) is low, Vasconcelos insists. Thanks to their design and build quality, COBUS units have low maintenance costs, low diesel operating costs and a long operational lifespan, making them a much more attractive option for those service providers thinking long-term.
Plus, she continues, COBUS sells more than just a product. “We sell a solution, not just a bus,” Vasconcelos argues, combining high quality after-sales service and short delivery times to provide an integrated package that she says is not available from the competition.
Inventory is held, though tightly controlled to minimise the impact on the company’s bottom line, permitting that short delivery time. Moreover, with COBUS producing an average of five or six buses each week, production can be scaled up or down as required.
Another benefit to the customer not offered by some of COBUS’s competitors is the company’s ability to customise a vehicle to meet specific client requirements. This can also help ease the price burden for a customer seeking to economise – not all the usual ‘add-ons’ need be included in the buses supplied to any given purchaser.
STAYING ON TOP
The airport bus segment is not only changing quickly, it is also growing, thanks in the main to the ever-increasing numbers of us taking to the air for business or holidays. That growth in the segment is attracting new bus suppliers. Some of them are based in lower cost economies such as China; they have tended in the past to restrict their marketing efforts to more local customers, but they are now looking to sell into Europe.
To stay ahead is going to take foresight and investment. COBUS is investing in product innovation, some of which improves quality while also helping lower the cost of production.
Plus, investment has been funnelled into new technologies as a result of other pressures impacting COBUS customers. The drive toward greener airport GSE has led many handlers to look to electric buses, for example, and late last year the manufacturer signed its first order for its E.COBUS. Stuttgart International Airport has ordered six of the lithium ion battery-powered vehicles as part of its concerted effort to go green. As previously reported in the Summer 2014 issue of Airside, the E.COBUS has been widely tested at various European gateways and – says Vasconcelos – significant levels of interest have been generated.
With more than 3,000 COBUS vehicles already in operation at airports in more than 100 countries, the company has a lead that Vasconcelos is not prepared to relinquish. The investment that the company is making in more environmentally friendly – and other – technologies will, she says, continue to keep COBUS as the first name that comes to mind when potential customers consider the acquisition of a new airport bus.