From a two-aircraft airline to one of the largest and most respected budget carriers in the world, AirAsia proves that passion and perseverance can propel a simple dream to a spectacular reality.
Words: Shantini Suntharajah
It all began with a dream
Back when AirAsia’s Group CEO, Tan Sri Dr. Tony Fernandes was a boarding school student in England, his dearest wish was to fly home to Malaysia during his half-term holidays. Unfortunately, for the homesick adolescent, this simple desire remained out of reach. Flight tickets were prohibitively expensive back then, and regular visits home were out of the question. So, young Tony dreamt of a day when a flight from London to Kuala Lumpur would be affordable enough for people to make the trip without worrying about cost. It was the first spark that instilled a deep desire to make air travel accessible to everyone.
It would take more than 30 years but this dream would become a reality in a way that Fernandes himself could not have imagined. He didn’t know it then but he would one day be the man who could honestly proclaim: Now Everyone Can Fly.
The One Ringgit Man
The true story of AirAsia is so incredible that it might have been lifted from a Hollywood movie.
Although Fernandes had that first notion for cheap flights between England and Malaysia back in boarding school, it was not a dream he pursued from the word ‘Go’. He graduated from the London School of Economics, worked in finance for some time and then became a successful music executive. Although not a businessman by profession, Fernandes certainly displayed business acumen when he foresaw a dim future for the music industry at that point. In a surprise move that foreshadowed his trademark spontaneity, Fernandes quit his job at the peak of his career.
It was around this time that he and a number of talented colleagues from the music business heard about an ailing airline, which belonged to a government-owned conglomerate. Together with partners Dato’ Pahamin Rejab (former chairman of AirAsia), Dato Kamarudin Meranun (present Deputy Group CEO, AirAsia), and Dato Aziz Bakar (present Chairman of AirAsia), Tony Fernandes founded Tune Air Sdn Bhd in 2001. His vision was to democratise air travel and free it from the clutches of the elite by offering low fares and quality air travel. The four partners bought the then bleeding AirAsia from its Malaysian owner DRB-Hicom, for a token RM1 (USD 0.25 cents), and agreed to take over the airline’s RM40 million debt!
Driven by Fernandes and his team of capable partners, AirAsia repaid that debt in less than two years – despite the fact that it was operating in an extremely challenging environment in the post-September 11, 2001, era. It started with two planes (Boeing 737-300s), one destination (Langkawi island) and a staff of just 250.
Fernandes remained unperturbed by what others believed to be an incredibly bad time to purchase an airline. This was also the year the world witnessed the most horrifying tragedy in aviation history – the 9/11 attacks in the US. The future seemed decidedly bleak. Airlines across the world were retrenching employees, and travellers feared air travel. The entire aviation industry seemed on the verge of collapse.
Fernandes and his team saw this as a golden opportunity to revive the industry by introducing a brand new airline with an unusual business model. The slump in the aviation industry steered many skilled and experienced industry workers to the fledgling airline. Expanding the fleet of aircraft also proved to be cheaper than expected, as lease prices were at an all time low. It was the most opportune time to expand the airline with bigger and better plans for the future.
A Success Story
It is 10 years on and AirAsia will go down in the annals of global history as the airline that could. The carrier has come a long, long way from its modest beginnings. At last count, the airline has a fleet of more than 104 aircraft. Red and white AirAsia planes take off and land in more than 76 destinations worldwide, and cover 132 routes – 40 of which are offered exclusively. Along with its low-cost, long-haul affiliate, AirAsia X, AirAsia now connects people travelling through three continents namely Asia, Oceania and Europe. Millions of passengers have been safely transported around the world and in October 2010, the carrier flew its 100 millionth guest – a young, Indonesian newlywed visiting her husband in India. At present, the figure exceeds 140 million guests.
AirAsia’s reputation as an excellent employer, where staff is considered to be part of the AirAsia family, has attracted top-notch personnel. There are currently about 10,000 people, collectively known as ‘AllStars’, in employment with the airline.
Awards & Accolades
In less than a decade, AirAsia has transformed into a force to be reckoned with and the world has certainly taken notice. The budget carrier has won multiple awards such as The Best Asian Low Cost Carrier for 2010 by TTG and the Air Cargo Industry Newcomer of the Year Award, ACW World Air Cargo Awards. The carrier has also won the prestigious World’s Best Low Cost Airline from Skytrax not just once but three consecutive times. Skytrax is a London-based aviation consultancy and this award is especially respected, as it is based on the results of an Annual World Airline Survey that polls over 16 million air travellers from across the globe.
Everybody’s Favourite Airline
AirAsia’s modern, state-of-the-art aircraft fleet, ever-expanding flight network, high flight frequencies along with easy-to-use booking systems and excellent services are some of the secrets of its extraordinary success. The low-cost airline regularly tops everyone’s favourite list due to its comfortable yet affordable flight experience, which allows passengers to personalise their air travels with clever options like choosing their own meals and seats and, upsizing baggage. It doesn’t hurt that the company has a remarkable aptitude for keeping up with the times and staying fun and fresh by initiating the latest and best technological advances in passenger services.
Over the past 10 years, AirAsia has marked hundreds of amazing milestones. Some of the most outstanding include becoming the first airline in the world to offer a total, comprehensive booking system targeting mobile phones and wireless devices in 2005. Two years later, AirAsia X, the long haul equivalent of AirAsia, was launched, allowing passengers to travel greater distances at lower costs. In 2009, AirAsia set a new world record when it launched its 1 Million Free Seats campaign and 402, 222 seats were snapped up in 24 hours.
These fantastic feats are certainly attention-grabbers but it’s the carrier’s ongoing thoughtful passenger services and savvy innovations that have kept it well ahead of its peers – some of which have been in the industry far longer. AirAsia is now the largest low-cost airline in Asia and the only truly ASEAN (The Association of South East Asian Nations) airline serving 600 million people in the region with 10 bustling hubs in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia along with a virtual hub in Singapore.
The Sky’s The Limit
As a globally recognised ASEAN brand, the sky’s the limit for AirAsia. Over the years, the company has retained unwavering focus on its vision to provide the lowest cost airfare and the highest possible quality of service for every guest that boards its aircraft. AirAsia also offers affordably priced and even free tickets annually, which means that air travel is now a reality for people who previously only dreamt of, exotic, far-flung destinations.
While AirAsia’s amazing accomplishments, awards and accolades take centre stage, it can’t be denied that the true heart of this incredible tale lies in the people who make up the AirAsia workforce. Every red and white aircraft that streaks across the sky is a reminder that passion and persistence have the power to defy logic and break through boundaries.
As AirAsia celebrates its 10th year, its success serves as an inspiration to anyone who has dared to envision a bigger, brighter future.
So, when things get tough, it’s good to remember that, one of the most successful airlines in the world began with a dream… and now everyone can fly.
NUMBERS THAT MATTER
2 aircraft were initially in service when AirAsia first started operations in 2001.
6 flight simulators are in operation at AirAsia Academy, comprising four Airbus A320s, one Airbus A330 and one Boeing 737, which are run and maintained by CAE, a leading provider of integrated training solutions, advanced simulation, and control technologies to the aviation industry.
11aircraft are in service with AirAsia X (nine A330-300s and two A340-300s).
25 minute turnaround time is put in practice for AirAsia to optimise cost for improved aircraft utilisation and crew efficiency.
76 destinations and growing, with Da Nang in central Vietnam being the latest to join AirAsia’s network.
93 aircraft (A320) in service with AirAsia.
200 new A320 NEO aircraft purchased at the Paris Air Show 2011.
2,268 flight attendants provide service with a smile across AirAsia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore) and AirAsia X routes.
9,880 AllStars are in employment with AirAsia: Malaysia AirAsia (MAA) 5,101; Thai AirAsia (TAA) 1,966; Indonesia AirAsia (IAA) 1,499; AirAsia X (AAX) 1,187 and Philippines AirAsia (PAA) with 127.
140,000 hotels worldwide work together with AirAsiaExpedia offering AirAsia guests a wide range of accommodation to choose from.
RM311,622 was collected from the AirAsia-IJN (National Heart Institute) Donate Your Loose Change campaign. AirAsia matched RM1 for every RM1 collected. The money was channelled towards medical treatment for patients diagnosed with heart disease.
2,160,000 copies of Travel 3Sixty have been printed since the magazine was first published in August 2007.
2,479,941 followers on AirAsia social media networks with 1,930,097 on AirAsia Facebook, 354,370 on Twitter, 173,005 on Weibo and 22,469 on Ren Ren.
33,090,963 kilogrammes of Cargo & Courier transported by AirAsia and 27, 266, 188 kilogrammes of Cargo transported by AAX.
139,064,262 guests have flown return so far on AA and AAX.
US$3.48 billion is the total market capitalization of AirAsia.
Pillars of AirAsia
The airline was built on sheer grit, determination and the hard work of countless AllStars – all driven by passion to fly the red and white of AirAsia’s colours high and proud. Here, some of the pioneers speak to us about the journey thus far.
Kathleen Tan Regional Head of Commercial, MAA
Looking back, I clearly remember arriving in Kuala Lumpur seven years ago, knowing nothing of the aviation industry. My background was in the fashion and music industries and suddenly, I was facing a whole new kettle of fish. Armed with two suitcases, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur and thus began an amazing journey of self-discovery, empowerment and actualisation.
Tony’s mission for me was both challenging and daunting: ‘Go Change China’. Knowing next to nil about the airline industry was already unnerving but now, I was asked to break into the Chinese market, a country unfamiliar with e-Commerce or Low Cost Carrier models – both essential business elements to AirAsia. Not one to decline a challenge, I saw this as a chance to further enhance my learning curve and, bring to the table the opportunity to tap into one of the world’s biggest consumer markets. China wasn’t easy but I simply armed myself with a huge map of the country, my reliable laptop, lots of googled information and, a ‘never say die attitude’.
AirAsia now flies to seven destinations in China and more locations are coming up soon. Not only have we successfully penetrated the Bamboo Curtain, we have also established a huge network that has opened up opportunities for travellers and local citizens. Millions of young Chinese, who had never flown out of their country before were suddenly presented with the chance to fly to exotic parts of the world. I frequently get messages on my personal and AirAsia’s Weibo accounts, especially from youth, thanking AirAsia for making global travel possible for the Chinese.
I am also passionate about nurturing young talent. In AirAsia, we pride ourselves on pioneering innovative approaches. My personal motto echoes Tony’s favourite phrase, ‘Nothing is Impossible’. Being a part of AirAsia inspires me to discover my own potential. I thrive in this amazingly exciting but challenging environment. It literally has been ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ all the way, but more importantly, I’m able to see the importance of working with a young and enthusiastic workforce who is eager to embrace change. As a leader, I tap into these characteristics and find ways to mould the young uns’. I am as much a boss as I am a mentor, constantly challenging and creating a work environment that brings out the best in these young people. As clichéd as it may sound, we really do offer young people satisfying careers, and if you’ve got the talent, drive and aptitude, we want to hear from you.
The AirAsia success story is unique but it is one that was built on sheer determination and hard work. I believe the company will grow to even greater heights with newer destinations, services and features, and I am proud to be part of this global airline brand that has revolutionised travel. Happy 10th birthday, AirAsia.
Kristina Ariyanti Admin Executive CEO’s Office, IAA
In my five years at AirAsia, I have achieved so much, and I am proud to an AllStar. I have been given the opportunity to deal with complex issues and come up with solutions. In achieving this, I’ve met and worked together with amazing colleagues and bosses. The goal is simple: to deliver world-class service to our guests and create a sense of caring and belonging amongst staff. What more can you ask for in a job?
Cheralyn Lucia Theseira Resourcing Executive, People Department, MAA
I enjoy the environment at AirAsia and want to continue working here for a long, long time! AirAsia places a lot of emphasis on trust, and allows AllStars to showcase their talents. It encourages staff to be proud of what they are doing and rewards them without hesitation. There is no putting a value on the experience that I have gained here. I have grown so much, and I can honestly say, “AirAsia offers a career, not a job!”
Mulyana Station Head, Medan, IAA
Over the last five years of working at AirAsia, I have been trained to offer our guests the best service. I started off as a Guest Service Assistant at the Jakarta station in 2006, but was able to showcase my talent and execute the various responsibilities entrusted to me. From there, my career just kept growing. I was made the station head for Palembang and subsequently, Medan. My most joyous moments with AirAsia were when I shared the stage with Tony Fernandes at our annual dinner in 2010, and performed with CEO of IAA Pak Dharmadi at the Skytrax Party in Bangkok.
Ana Christi Grageda-Galura
Ground Operations, MAA, Diosdado Macapagal International Airport, Clark Civil Aviation Complex
I joined AirAsia three years ago and God willing, I hope to retire here because I’ve learnt from the best. My superiors are not just my bosses, they are my mentors. They teach by doing and living the AllStars credo. They put their faith in you, so you know they’ve got your back. Meritocracy is strictly practised, thus you are inspired to work because you are valued for your contributions. With AirAsia, I feel I’ll never grow old because it is a company that truly brings out the best in me.
Lau Kin Choy Director of IT, MAA
What changes in technology have you seen take place at AirAsia?
Over the years, the booking engine has evolved from just allowing you to book a seat to catering for virtually everything you need for your flight. Keeping up with new technology, we have the mobile platform that mirrors all the functionalities of AirAsia.com. In short, a lot of self-service initiatives are being made available to empower our guests to manage their own bookings.
How has the response been from AirAsia guests?
When we wanted to drive sales via the Internet in 2002, people were sceptical as not many people, especially Asians, transacted online. Fortunately, sceptics were proven wrong and Internet sales, driven by our super low fares, increased steadily and now clocks in at about 90% of our total sales. Self-service options allow guests to check-in online, manage their flights, and purchase ancillary products like in-flight meals; the response towards these initiatives has been great. Guests feel that they have more control over their bookings. They don’t have to contact the Call Centre, or pay additional charges for these services.
What are some of the new technology that guests can expect from AirAsia in the future?
We are constantly enhancing and improving all interaction channels with our guests. In future, AirAsia will have easier and more user-friendly systems to ensure a satisfying user experience. Briefly, we are looking at reducing queues for guests wanting to check-in their baggage, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology for bag-tracking, and NFC (Near Field Communications) for self-boarding. The usage of phones and the Internet onboard is definitely something we are working on as well.
Bo Lingam COO Operations & Planning, MAA
As one of the airline’s pioneers, what are some of the milestones you’ve witnessed that have transformed aa into a global brand?
I’ve seen AirAsia grow from two to 100 planes, covering the whole of ASEAN and beyond. With our strong brand presence and, sponsorship of and association with high profile brands, we are now a household name. The most compelling achievement I’ve witnessed is the development of staff who started initially as Guest Service Assistants or cashiers, and didn’t have the means to pursue their dreams. Working with AirAsia enabled them to make their dreams come true by training to become pilots, engineers, managers and flight attendants. I am very proud of this!
To be honoured with a plane livery of yourself is such a GREAT TRIBUTE. How would you encourage Allstars to live the airasia spirit?
It was an honour indeed to have a plane livery dedicated to me. Work hard, go beyond the call of duty and respect others, irrespective of one’s position in the company. Most importantly, treat our guests with the utmost respect and kindness, and do not forget to LISTEN when someone’s talking to you.
Augustine Palus Ramp Team Leader, MAA
The most memorable event during my service with AirAsia was when I was selected to help set up and open Bintulu Station, Sarawak in 2004. Together with my then Station Manager, Sudirman Khusairi, we did everything to get the station ready to receive guests. We had to find vendors to supply office equipment, and meet and discuss matters with the airport authority. This was an amazing challenge for me but with great help from my colleagues in Kuala Lumpur and cooperation from the airport authorities, we managed to settle everything before the first AirAsia flight landed at Bintulu Airport on Aug 30, 2004.
Kanchana Jasaen (Immy) Corporate Culture, TAA
To me, being an AllStar means that I’m a point-of-contact for AirAsia guests. My colleagues and I are the connecting dots that help deliver exceptional service to our guests. AirAsia has created praiseworthy service by continuously improving our quality beyond customer expectations and in forging a strong corporate culture by building on the good things from all the countries we fly to. This motivates me to keep trying harder in making our guests’ experiences with AirAsia memorable at all times.
Suhaila Hassan Flight Attendant Manager, MAA
How many FAs do you manage and what challenges do you face?
As AirAsia Flight Attendant Manager, I’ve about 1,000 boys and girls under my supervision. Managing all that intelligence and gorgeousness on a daily basis is no easy feat! This is a hot seat I’m in, but I have learnt to handle them with patience as this is perhaps the best way to deal with the Gen Y youngsters. As a former FA myself, I underwent training that was strict and pressure-ridden. At present, we have changed our training to FUN and FRIENDLY.
What are the biggest misconceptions about the career of a flight attendant and how is AirAsia helping to change this perception?
You’d probably have heard that the job of a Flight Attendant is just a glorified waiter in the sky, pushing the service cart down the aisle. This is the biggest misconception about Flight Attendants. At AirAsia, we offer them a career. FAs can work all the way up to the retirement age of 55. We also encourage them to pursue their dreams within the organisation. For example, some FAs have trained to become pilots. We’ve also injected a lot of warmth into their personalities in making them fun and friendly personalities in the sky. These FAs are also trained extensively to understand our aircraft and safety procedures, and offer sterling customer service.
What is the most important trait that a FA needs?
A FA’s job and lifestyle is not a walk in the park, as it carries huge responsibilities. When we find potential candidates, we try to help them achieve their dreams. We gather these raw ‘diamonds’ during interview sessions, take them to our training academy and polish them to sheer brilliance. If you are bubbly, humble, fun and friendly, come and join our great team!
These are the newcomers to AirAsia, a new breed of AllStars who are brimming with passion, energy and enthusiasm. Hailing from diverse backgrounds and expertise, the young guns speak about their drive and how AirAsia is helping them chart newer territories in their profession and personal lives.
Rajesh Gill Chief Pilot Technical, Development & Regulatory Affairs, MAA
What challenges do you face daily in managing pilots and the work that they do?
There are many challenging issues, both personal and operational that crop up – anything from a pilot unable to turn up for work because his house caught fire to dealing with a volcano erupting and spewing ash over Indonesia, where a decision has to be made if we fly in or not… these are but some of the daily challenges. I could probably write a book filled with such incidents and events over the past two and a half years.
Tell us about the training that pilots are subjected to
All our pilots go through an extensive ground and flight training program, which depending on the level of experience upon entry into the system, could take anywhere from a month to six months. This includes many hours in the classroom, flight simulator and line training before they are cleared as operational Flight Crew on a normal commercial flight.
What advice do you have for aspiring pilots who wish to join AirAsia?
AirAsia offers equal employment opportunities to all who wish to join the AirAsia family. Should you be offered an opportunity to interview with AirAsia, take the time out to work hard and prepare for the selection process. It is designed to only choose the best out there. So, if that’s you, we want you!
Vijaya Priya Communications Executive, MAA
Anyone who walks into our company will feel the positive vibes in the office. We are more than just a team; we are a family. Here, our work isn’t executed just as an assignment but as a responsibility. This is a people-based company that encourages flexible working conditions, with opportunities that offer challenging and meaningful career paths. One of the most important things I’ve learned here is persistence – never give up, the solution is probably right in front of you.
Matthew Mok Content Manager, Digital Services, MAA
Besides offering everyone a chance to travel, AirAsia strives to innovate and offer better products and services, despite the numerous challenges. We work hard to overcome setbacks and come up with great solutions! To me, that makes AirAsia an exciting and fun place to contribute my skills. Opportunities for self-growth simply abound within this company.
Bhim Chandra Rai Special Project Assistant, Operations, MAA
Hailing from Khotang district at the foothills of Mt Everest, AirAsia is my home away from home. Everyone from the bosses to the receptionists greets you with a smile and make you feel like family. I come in to work an hour early every day because I just can’t wait to see my ‘family’ and begin my day. It is a vibrant and exciting environment to work in and I am very proud to call myself an AllStar.
Ho Wei Lek Purchasing Executive, Finance, MAA
Happy 10th anniversary AirAsia! This is really a wonderful company to work for – dynamic, energetic, happening and fun. I enjoy working here and the Allstars are one big, happy family. Of course, there are differences in opinion and personality clashes but there also seems to be a genuine love for AirAsia and that’s when people put their differences aside and work for the overall good of the company. ‘Blood, sweat and tears’ have been shed but it has all been worth it.
Devinder Singh Bindra Distribution & Business Development Manager for India, Sri Lanka & Bangladesh, MAA.
What are the challenges of introducing AirAsia services to the Indian market?
The Indian market is a highly challenging and volatile one where different cities have entirely different travel dynamics. Offering an entirely revolutionary airline product to such diverse markets was probably the biggest challenge as we had to be careful to stress how AirAsia would meet and exceed the expectations of each of these markets. The Indian domestic market is one of the fastest growing. There has been a spill-over of this traffic onto the international air travel market as well especially for low cost services like AirAsia.
How has AirAsia revolutionised air travel in India?
For a country with a middle and upper class population that’s roughly 200 million, air travel is still in its infancy in India. India has emerged as the first market globally where the share of Low Cost Carrier (LCC ) traffic exceeds that of legacy carriers. AirAsia, as the leading LCC in Asia has thus, become a welcome option for middle class Indians. By bringing the LCC model into smaller towns and cities, AirAsia has not only opened up new access points for India’s rapidly growing secondary cities but in a way, also inspired Indian LCCs to follow suit.
What’s the best compliment you have ever received from a guest who has flown with AAX?
A guest once said, “Thanks to AirAsia, my entire family of eight can travel together on holiday, including my Mom & Dad.”
Krittaya Srisawatampai Quality Assurance Engineer, Engineering Department, TAA
Keeping in mind the recent floods that affected Thailand, I must say I am totally touched by the strong bond that exists amongst AllStars and how the company went about providing assistance to its staff members. We started by earmarking the locations of staffs’ homes in the affected areas. Next, a rescue team, led by TAA Maintenance Manager, helped staff evacuate in areas affected by severe flooding, and AirAsia helped by finding temporary accommodation. Additionally, not only did we help each other but we also donated tonnes of essential goods, food and drinking water to non-AirAsia flood victims.
Jonathan Goh Tze Yeow Marketing Executive, MAA
AirAsia has come a long way in the last 10 years, and has seen a lot of changes. I feel proud to be part of this growing family. I joined AirAsia about two years ago and I treasure every moment working in this company ever since. AirAsia has offered me the opportunity for personal growth and that contributes to a sense of personal achievement and recognition. AirAsia values employees as its greatest asset, and this makes us one big family.
Frank Tang Ting Station Head, Guangzhou, MAA
What are the challenges of introducing AirAsia to the Chinese market?
At first, many of our guests were not used to our business concept as they were accustomed to full service airlines. Thanks to our marketing team who worked extra hard in changing the mindset of the locals, now AirAsia has become the preferred choice. This is mostly because guests understand that they only need to pay for the services that they want, and plan their travels in advance to take advantage of our affordable fares.
How has AirAsia opened up air travel to Chinese citizens and what are the popular places they go to?
We see lots of youngsters travelling to Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok from Guangzhou; some of them will then take connecting flights to Langkawi, Kota Kinabalu, Bali, Phuket, Chiangmai, or even Kolkata! Now everyone can fly, everywhere!
What is the best compliment you have ever received from an AirAsia guest?
When we first started the Guangzhou – Kuala Lumpur flight, I met a Malaysian family who were flying with another airline. I learnt that the father works in Singapore, the mother runs a business in Guangzhou, but the family lives in Johor Bahru. They were surprised that AirAsia had started flying to Guangzhou, and have become loyal fans ever since. I believe this is the best compliment ever!
10 MEMORABLE MOMENTS–AirAsia Allstars share memorable moments from their personal photo travel albums. Check out the pictures in the digital edition of December 2011. Go to DOWNLOADS now.