Saturday, March 15, 2008

Air Asia future and goals

By Star Biz

AirAsia is not a beverage, yet Datuk Tony Fernandes, who has been instrumental in building the low-cost airline, believes that the AirAsia brand can become as popular as Coca-Cola.

His wish is to see the AirAsia’s name plastered across billboards and banners in travel offices around the globe, even on watches and football stadiums, in six years.

A recent article described Coke as “truly a model of marketing power as its image has transcended national borders to cultural barriers to reach almost everyone on earth”.

“I would like the AirAsia brand to be as big as Coca-Cola,” Fernandes, the group CEO of AirAsia, told StarBiz in an interview recently.

“Given fair competition, we can be as big or even bigger than Singapore Airlines (SIA) too.

“We can be, and it is my goal that we, AirAsia, become bigger than SIA, and carry more passengers than SIA.”

He is using SIA as the benchmark as it is a well-recognised global airline brand although the national carrier, Malaysia Airlines, has for several years been winning accolades for having the world’s best crew.

But in terms of brand reach, Fernandes prefers the market reach to be as big as that of Coke.

“Even before AirAsia can fly to Europe, it was already flying Europeans and other nationalities around Asia and that just goes to show that our brand is spreading all over.

“AirAsia is a strong brand and an airline that has managed to create a market for itself. It has gone beyond Malaysia’s borders and would continue to carry the Malaysian flag to more countries,” he said.

Today, AirAsia flies 90 routes and to 47 destinations, has a fleet of 67 aircraft and has ordered 175 new aircraft in the hope of becoming as big as Ryanair. It employs nearly 5,000 people.

Ryanair, according to its website, was set up in 1985 and is today Europe’s largest low-fare airline. This year, Ryanair will carry 52 million passengers on 645 low-fare routes across 26 European countries.

By the end of March, Ryanair will operate a fleet of 163 new Boeing 737-800 aircraft and has placed firm orders for 99 more new aircraft to be delivered over the next five years. The airline employs 5,000 people.

AirAsia's sister company, AirAsia X, is a long-haul low-cost carrier which began flying passengers last November. Its first destination was Australia's Gold Coast and the airline has now added Hangzhou to its network.

More destinations are on its route map but the airline needs to get new planes before it can start operating more routes. It wants to reach out to as far as London to connect Asians to Europe and vice-versa.

AirAsia was incorporated in 1983. It started off as a joint venture between Hicom Holdings Bhd and Mofaz Air Sdn Bhd but only took to the skies in November 1996 after a two-year delay.

The idea of setting up a second airline for Malaysia was to offer travellers new destinations to complement MAS' regional services. But it did do as expected and was sold to Tune Air Sdn Bhd in September 2001 for RM1.

The deal was completed five days before the Sept 11 attacks that threw the aviation sector into a tailspin. Many people had then wondered if Fernandes and his friends, who were from the music industry, knew how to operate an airline amid turbulent times. Not long after that, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak also shook up the aviation sector.

Tune Air’s strategy was tactical. It re-launched the brand and used red as a base coat. The airline lured travellers by offering several hundreds free seats. Low-cost travel was a new thing then and the promoters of AirAsia just knew how to get people excited with its low, and at times zero, fares.

Many first timers flew with AirAsia and this speaks volumes of the airline's tagline “Now, everyone can fly.” With AirAsia, Malaysians had the choice to travel cheap and it is no a surprise that one planning a holiday would ask: “Does AirAsia fly there?''

AirAsia, as a brand, has gone beyond cities to towns and small villages. Today, it links many Asian cities to Kuala Lumpur. Soon, it will be linking Europe, India and the Middle East to Malaysia.

Entering the Singapore market was a major coup for the airline, which initially had no future in the republic. Today, it provides the linkage for many travellers from Singapore and via Singapore to Malaysia and Asia at low fares.

Giving away free seats and dropping fares to very low levels has helped the brand spread. Encouraging travellers to book online has allowed many to book seats from remote cities anywhere in the world.

Fernandes said many new routes and destinations were on the cards. “We will fly to Amritsar and London soon,” he promises.

Many AirAsia billboards and banners will be put up in other countries but will the AirAsia brand eventually come close to the omnipresence of the Cocal-Cola name?

A lot of work lies ahead of AirAsia as the clock starts ticking.