From an early age, travel and aviation have played a significant role in the life of Sam Chui and his career outlook. Born in Beijing, China in 1980, he went on to launch his website, SamChuiPhotos.com, in 1999 and then a YouTube channel in 2007.
Two decades later, Chui is recognized globally as the most followed content creator and travel blogger on the aviation scene, having amassed a significant following of nearly seven million followers across social media and achieved a billion views with his travel videos.
Today, his website provides media, industry news, insights and updates, alongside his most recent ventures in business and consulting within aviation.
In an interview with AeroTime, Sam revealed plans to build a new platform for travelers to share and review their travel experiences.
You launched SamChuiPhotos.com in 1999 during the dot com boom. What was your thinking process and motivation for jumping into content creation at that point?
Sam: Like you said, that was during the dot com bubble. Everybody wanted to have a website and I was so into aviation. During that time, I was a university student and I thought, let’s start a website sharing photos. That’s why it’s called SamChuiPhotos. That’s how everything started.
I was an aviation enthusiast when I was young, watching planes come and go in Hong Kong and in Sydney, Australia where I grew up. There’s nothing better than going out to the airport fence to smell the jet fuel when a 747 SP taxies past you. The pilot sometimes waves at you as well. You are just holding on to the fence and looking at them. It’s wonderful. Then the next moment you just tell yourself, ‘I want to be a passenger, I want to fly in that plane and see what it’s like’. That’s how it all started.
You’ve flown on many unique flights, such as the British Airways Concorde and Singapore Airlines A380 inaugural flight. What were those experiences like for you? What was going through your mind during those moments?
Sam: Super tough question. I think every flight I’ve taken was unique in its own way. I’ve done the Concorde supersonic. I’ve taken a flight that landed in Antarctica on the Blue Ice runway. I’ve travelled to Mount Everest base camp on helicopters. And I flew on the Antonov 22, the world’s biggest turbo prop. So, honestly, there are so many experiences in the portfolio that I could say that they are all unique. I don’t have a single favorite.
All of these experiences made me start to think that I needed to start documenting all of this. During that time, we didn’t have really good video cameras, but we had pictures. We just had the first generation DSLR cameras. So, I started to make trip reports. One of those stories I told was when I traveled 10,000 miles from Australia to Toulouse, just to watch the first maiden departure of the A380. I gave a review of what it was like to see them coming back, waving at the crowd, and how that moment felt. That’s how I started sharing all the experiences.
In 2007 you launched your YouTube channel. Was that the deciding factor in transitioning from plane spotting to video content?
Sam: It was all through random discovery, honestly. There was no path to walk or follow. Videos seemed cool, but video cameras were not so good those days. So, I uploaded one video, then it became dormant for about eight years until I figure out in 2015/16 that there were better cameras, better smartphones. Social media was on the rise, and I started thinking, ‘let me share more’. I realized I was getting followers, up to 1000 followers every day. It dawned on me that people really liked the videos and the content, and there were really great and encouraging comments. People really appreciated what I was putting out there, and I decided that there was a future doing this.
I was working in an investment house in Abu Dhabi and I had a very good paying job. It was very secure and had good benefits. It wasn’t until I became 37 years old, at a very late age, that I decided to quit that job and fully go into aviation content creation. It was really odd. I was paralleling the two jobs, but I realized my true passion was actually in aviation. When I was working in finance and investment, all I was thinking was where to fly on the weekend, and how to use all my savings to fly everywhere. Then when the content creation started, I saw that you could make money from that. The money from YouTube, the money from social media, was able to support me and make me a living.
After about a year paralleling the two jobs, I decided to jump and go full time. And boom, like a rocket, I suddenly gained five days of productivity. After leaving your day job, you are completely on your own, but the thing is, you will never look back because you will be able to gain all the productivity you want – to do whatever you want, to fully focus on what you want to do.
By 2016, your channel was averaging millions of views per video. From a personal perspective, what fundamentally changed for you as you entered this new period?
Sam: Well, I will say that for myself it never changed. Today, I’m still an aviation geek, I’m still an enthusiast. All the stuff I’ve done is because I like what I do. It’s passion that drives me to what I want to do. For example, I’m going to get on the airBaltic flight for my departure. I want to jump seat into the cockpit, I want to see what it’s like for pilots flying the A220. Things like that drive me, because I enjoy doing all these things, and I want to share all the experiences. So, from that perspective, I don’t think anything has changed at all.
Walk us through your creative process. How do you decide to do a flight review, pick a flight or select a specific aircraft type that you want to fly on?
Sam: It’s very simple. It is actually completely up to me. I look at things that I haven’t done before that I have a huge interest in, whether it’s flying a new airplane type, a new airline, or an event like an airshow or a delivery flight from the Airbus factory. There’s a mixture of my own things and events and news that’s fresh out of our industry.
Collaboration plays such an important part in what you do and the content creation process. How do you navigate that? What’s your approach to collaboration in the industry?
Sam: To present a video, I want special access. I don’t want to sit outside the fence where everybody has the same level of access. I want to be an insider. I want to be behind the scenes, inside the airlines. To have access to see what their catering looks like, how they create their food, what their operations are like, and how pilots fly in a cockpit. I think my content is different because I like to explore different angles to do a lot of things that normally people would need access to.
How you gain access is the question. That’s a lot of relationship fostering as well. Also, I want to cover broader topics, such as my visit to Avia Solution Group to touch on the new concept of ACMI leasing. It’s continuous learning, because there are always new things in aviation, because people are innovative.
Has there ever been a time where you wanted to fly on a particular aircraft or review a particular flight, and the collaborating party said no?
Sam: There are always challenges and difficulties. I have never flown the Antonov 225, sadly, because I assumed the plane would be there and now it’s been destroyed. It’s so sad. There’s always a lot of challenges and work behind the scenes to get permission. Not all the Civil Aviation Authorities allow you to jump seats or allow you to put a camera in the cockpit. The FAA wouldn’t do it on Part 121 for the US passenger airliners.
So, there’s a lot of challenges there, but you have got to put your thinking hat on when you can’t do something and explore or suggest alternatives and be inquisitive about what you can do. There are lots of things that can give you new energy and give you new scope as well.
Do you have a team that helps you manage your content creation or are you handling it all yourself?
Sam: To be very honest, I was handling most of it before, up until a point when I figured out I could use some synergies. Today, I do have two very good friends as editors who help me put together the music and graphics. I’m still the original editor, and I do a lot of the videos that I’ve filmed on my own. I go through the footage, I clean it. I put it all together, then I send it out to one of the editors who will add music and do the final touch. I will say I’m a bit of a control freak and I like to have control of my own content.
For example, when people see replies from my Instagram or LinkedIn accounts, that’s actually me replying. Now I also have a company that helps me to translate some of the YouTube long content or short forms on Facebook and other platforms. So, it’s getting there, but I still like to maintain my own personal touch.
If someone wanted to replicate what you’ve built, what kind of blueprint would you suggest that they focus on?
Sam: I would say, focus on relationships. Like any business, the success factor lies in whether you are able to foster good relationships. If so, you will gain access, you will have exclusive content. Your content will benefit viewers and viewers will enjoy watching it. There are many multiple ways to get there, but if you just replicate people, doing the same thing over and over, I don’t think you will get there. You need to do something that is your own niche, that has your personality inside it. I think a lot of YouTubers have succeeded because they have their own niche.
As a travel enthusiast and as a creator, what were the first thoughts that went through your mind in 2020 when travel vanished?
Sam: Well, 2020 is a year that a lot of people want to forget and as an ‘av geek’ we want to forget as well. The 747s were all fast tracked to retirement by British Airways, Qantas and KLM. All the 747s were supposed to retire in 2023 and they brought that forward. It was a horrible year.
I was lucky, I still had mobility as I was living in the United States, and I was able to move around because we didn’t have a lockdown as severely as Asia Pacific did. But I would argue that during COVID, I changed. Once I quit my day job, from 2017 to 2020, I was mostly focused on content creation. However, in 2020, and then when 2021 came, I started an aviation consultancy that is focused on B2B, business strategy, relationship, marketing and intelligence. So, I came to support a lot of my clients, not just making videos or social media, but rather supporting their day-to-day business. I have amassed a massive network of between 10,000 to 20,000 contacts all over the world. A lot of my clients require access to relationships. They request connections to people who can help them in different countries, or if they have AOG, they ask if I would be able to help.
I have this consultancy now that is able to help foster relationships. Today we’re upgrading to helping people through purchase and sale transactions, as well as mergers and acquisitions. So, I have shifted from my B2C world of content into the business world now I am running this consultancy business. Every day is a new day and it’s challenging. It’s all about thinking about solutions.
Which travel trends today would you say are most prevalent in the industry right now?
Sam: If you look at Dubai Airshow 2023 as a recent example and a trend, on Day One, the orders had already exceeded the entire Paris Air Show in value, I believe. So, aviation is fully back, and this is an exciting time. We’re on the upslope right now and aviation companies are investing in their businesses again. There are many different aspects, including sustainability and SAF. Airlines are ordering new airplanes, they are investing in new products, new first class, new business class, new interiors. The whole supply chain is driving through right now, and it is in an expanding phase which is very exciting. It creates an opportunity for jobs at every level for engineers, for pilots, for cabin crews, for administrations – generally everybody.
How do you think innovations in sustainability, urban air mobility and SAF will impact or influence the travel experience for the traveler?
Sam: With SAF, I’m not an expert, but I’ve been told that the cost of producing and acquiring SAF is very high. The question is who is going to absorb the cost, whether it is going to pass from the government to the airlines, and then to the end user, meaning passengers. Then we’re going to have to bite the bullet, because we’re going to pay a much higher fare if the industry fully embraces the idea of SAF. That’s also quite debatable right now, because while the industry wishes to ramp up with all of these sustainable fuels, right now there’s not enough supplies to go net zero.
With EVTOLs, these are exciting, and I’ve been seeing them at every air show. There are many different companies producing EVTOLs. Some of them are hybrid, some of them are actually pilot-operated electric airplanes, but they haven’t been certified. I don’t know how they will get certified. They need a lot of data and test flights to be certified. There has to be a standard in every place where they can fly as well, because they can’t just fly and cross each other. They have to fly standard routes. So, this whole thing hasn’t developed fully, but it’s promising, because there is already a vision, and a lot of test flights are taking place with EVTOLs.
How do you find the time to stay up to date with what’s going on in the industry?
Sam: It’s funny, as I try to kill two birds with one stone. When I have a business meeting to go to somewhere, I will look up the location and fly an interesting airline that I haven’t reviewed or haven’t done a video on. So, I try to maximize my trip, make a video and maximum and enjoy everything to the fullest.
With the launch of your consultancy business in addition to your content creation, what would you say is next from Sam Chui?
Sam: There’s one very interesting thing I want to do, which has been in the making for the last two years. It’s no longer about being just one single person creating an airline video to talk about the experience. It’s about bringing everyone together – all the followers, the general flying public of 4.5 billion people in the world, coming together.
I will create a platform for people to review their experiences and review their flights. One person like me making a video cannot summarize an airline, based on just one voice. But if all the people can give their opinions and data, we will have transparency – which airlines are doing good, which airlines need to improve. I believe the future is going to be very simple. Because a lot of people don’t read anymore, I think it’s going to be data, imagery, pictures and videos. So, I’m going to create a platform that’s going to combine the reality of passenger experience. People can review and rate their flights, and they can submit photos and experiences. It’s a bit like a TripAdvisor for the airline industry. So, that’s what I’m going to develop in the next couple of years.
Why are travel experiences so important to you?
Sam: It’s something I enjoy, because this is where my passion is. I spend the happiest time in the air and just going through the airline product, whether it’s having a nice glass of champagne or looking out a window at a contrail. It’s something that I’ve found – that these are the best type of experiences and I need to create a platform to let everybody share experience and enjoy together.
How do you find time to balance your content creation and business ventures with your personal life as well?
Sam: Well, you know, aviation is 24/7, 365. It’s extremely time-consuming and also extremely tiring. You fly around the world, you get jet lag as well, right? There’s got to be a sacrifice in some part while you gain in some others. So, I will say you just need to prioritize and know your goal and focus on your goal.
Can you tease on any upcoming projects that your followers can look forward to?
Sam: The biggest thing next year, apart from the flight rating project, is to get myself back to flight training as well. I’ve got my private pilot license, but I’d like to progress more. I’d like to get IFR instruments done, commercial done, then I hopefully can get a type rating done so that I can have a taste of commercial pilot’s life as well. That’s one thing in the planning for the next two years.
Also, flying some of the dangerous flights. People like to go to exciting places, so I want to fly the PC 12 to an airfield in France. It’s a short airfield going up and down the slope. I’d like to fly to St. Barts and Saba in the Caribbean. There are a lot of aviation adventures that I haven’t done that I’m looking forward to doing next year.
Did the Queen of the Skies choose you or did you choose the Queen of the Skies?
Sam: It works both ways. When I got the aviation bug, it came from the Queen of the Skies. Then, once the bug was inside me, I chose the 747 back. Then I said I wanted to fly only to 747 most of the time. I have to say I’m very proud – I’ve flown nearly 300 times on this airplane now almost extinct in passenger flying. There are just a couple of carriers still flying it – most are cargo now – and it’s like nothing else. The 747 is really the mothership that opened the world to different travel opportunities. It’s a game changer.