Chandra Lie, co-founder and president director of Sriwijaya Air, built Sriwijaya from scratch with a single airplane in 2003 to become the country’s third largest airline by fleet size. In 2015, Sriwijaya and its subsidiary NAM Air catered to nearly 8.5 million passengers flying domestic routes and 13 international cities. The combined fleet is 45 aircraft, which makes it the 10th largest airline group in Southeast Asia, according to the Australia-based CAPA Centre for Aviation.
The company now is living up to its name, connecting the nation as dreamed by the kings of the ancient Srivijaya empire. “When I was a kid, to fly in an airplane was like a dream. Every time an airplane flew over our house, I would run out just to see it,” says Chandra, now 50, who was raised in a poor family on Bangka Island.
Chandra never went to university, ending his formal education at high school. The third child of six, Chandra says he and his siblings started working at early ages to help their family. In grade four, he earned money by helping to dry fish crackers—Bangka is known for its delicious fish crackers. And during his three years at junior high school, he took a part-time job making tofu in a nearby factory. Later his brother Hendry Lie started selling garments in Jakarta.
Chandra followed him, moving to the capital to continue his schooling and to help his brother sell imported Lea Jeans and later the Italian brand Leone’Uomo to department stores in Jakarta. The garment business grew fast. In 1987, two years after Chandra graduated from high school, the siblings had already set up a garment factory with 150 sewing machines and a thousand employees. Leone’Uomo is still selling in stores in five cities. Hendry is now a prominent business figure in Bangka, and runs tin company PT Tinindo Inter Nusa, which is one of the country’s largest tin exporters.
His venture in the airline business started in 1993. At the time, there were only two flights a week serving Jakarta and Pangkal Pinang, the airport in Bangka, while there were many businessmen like him who wanted a more frequent schedule. “So I and some partners started an airline business,” he says. Despite the venture later going sour, it prepared him to build a better model when the government made it easier for private companies to enter the airline industry in 2000.
Along with his brothers, Chandra set up PT Sriwijaya Air, which had its first flight in November 10, 2003, with a single Boeing 737-200 serving four routes: Jakarta-Pangkal Pinang, Jakarta-Palembang, Jakarta-Jambi, and Jakarta-Pontianak. Chandra also positioned Sriwijaya as a “medium-service” airline. It doesn’t provide the full service of flag carrier Garuda Indonesia, but its service levels are above budget airlines. Sriwijaya provides passengers with in-flight services like food, beverages, and entertainment—but with cheaper pricing compared to a full-service airline. For example, rather than a hot meal, Sriwijaya might serve a cold boxed lunch. This middle segment appeals to the growing middle-class segment that wants value for money, comfort, punctuality and safety.
So far the model has proved a success. From 2006 to 2013, Sriwijaya has tripled its annual passenger figures, while at the same time some airlines closed, according to CAPA. Now Sriwijaya is by far the largest airline within Indonesia’s medium-service category. Other medium-service airlines in the country are Aviastar, Kalstar, Transnusa, Trigana and Xpress Air.