The Way to an Asian Flyer's Heart is Through his Stomach.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Friday, 2nd July 2010
On Monday, I zipped up to Kuala Lumpur for a tour of the AirAsia Academy; the flight was full despite it being mid-morning.

I thought back to the dark – and expensive – days before low cost airlines were allowed to fly the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore route and how we consumers had only two carriers to choose from.

It's a short flight but even then the crew was briskly serving and selling hot food and drinks. I was amazed by the number of people who were buying meals, especially those who had pre-ordered online.

Asians love their food, Kathleen Tan, regional head of commercial for the AirAsia group told me later, and the airline does its best to ensure the food is representative of ASEAN and is good. CEO Tony Fernandes himself is a foodie and apparently goes ballistic when the food quality is not up to scratch.

Now Tan has taken on the role of chief food critic as she's been put in charge of ancillary as well. She admits there are inconsistencies in quality and often, they get complaints about the "nasi lemak" on their ex-Australian flights. "Australians just can't do nasi lemak the way we can in Malaysia," she said.

A review on Airlinemeals.net rated the "nasi lemak" on a Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur flight (pictured) as "very delicious". I have to agree.

On its flights to India, it is offering a lot more vegetarian options. To boost sales of food and other items such as baggage, it offers up to 50% discount if you pre-order online.

In the first quarter of this year, ancillary revenues at AirAsia increased by 31%, comprising 16% of total revenues. Tan wants to bump that up to 20%. The airline currently earns RM35 per pax in ancillary; Tan wants to double that.

The strong growth in ancillary was cited by Fernandes as a major highlight of first quarter performance – that, and the "sustained turnaround" of its Thai and Indonesian operations. The airline achieved an 8% year-over-year increase in first quarter net income to RM224.1 million (US$68.7 million) on a 10% rise in revenue to RM878 million.

Tan's desk is cluttered with merchandise samples. She intends to bring all her past retailing experience at Warner Music to bear on her new responsibility. "What do you think of this thumb drive?" she asked.

The Academy is located close to the LCCT – the terminal that AirAsia operates from. To be here at these two facilities is to appreciate how much the airline has grown. There are flights going everywhere in Asia – some to places I haven't heard of. By the fourth quarter of this year, it will fly its 100th million passenger and it now employs about 8,000 staff.

Its Academy churns out pilots and cabin crew to cope with the expansion. It has 1,200 cabin crew and 600 pilots on its payroll. There are six simulators for pilot training, which it operates in a partnership with Canadian company, CAE. There are pools for ditching drills (top photo). Flight attendants undergo 50 days of training, most of it on safety procedures. There are graduation ceremonies every two to three months and the highlight is a rah-rah speech by boss Fernandes, who I am told has made it to every ceremony bar one when he was unwell.

The greatest challenge, I am told, is teaching cabin attendants how to speak better English. Sometimes, there are complaints from customers that they can't understand the inflight announcements. With the Malaysian school system in Bahasa, recruits come in with poor grasp of the English language.

The AirAsia office feels like an airport terminal. It's full of people coming and going. Space is tight – this is clearly a company that has outgrown itself. Everything is open plan; there's not a lot of space or privacy for anyone. The chairman has a small area tucked in the back – there are bean chairs scattered around his "kingdom" and a bicycle, I am told, he hardly uses.

I poke my head into the ICT room and it feels like a classroom. Everyone in there is so young, I remark. "We hire them young, they love technology," said Tan. She points out two new hires who have been tasked to work on mobile. "We're pushing mobile in a big way," said Tan. "It's about accessibility. In a few years, your smartphone will be your everything."

She sees mobile becoming as big as the Internet but admits it will take a lot more effort to push it as a sales channel. She reminded me that in the first year of AirAsia's operations, the Internet was just 15% of sales, today it's 80%. "It takes commitment and know-how from the top," she said.

There's a youthful energy about the AirAsia office. It's far from posh. In fact, it's a bit of a mess. But as cramped and crowded as it is, there's an exuberance and enthusiasm in the air as staff come and go.

I wonder if it's because the people working here truly feel connected to the higher purpose of their job – that by working with AirAsia, they enable everybody to fly.

I also love the fact that you can hear accents from all over ASEAN at the office. With the addition of Yangon flights this month, AirAsia has completed the ASEAN puzzle – it now flies to all 10 ASEAN countries. Tan tells me that when they put Yangon on sale a week ago, they sold 50,000 seats which goes to show the pent-up demand for Myanmar (pictured).

And then I got it. If ASEAN were a country, this is what it would feel like.

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com . Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at the cafe for travel insiders.

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