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The value of rethinking while in the uncharted

By Ricky Isla Published Jul 27, 2022 5:02 am

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The year 2019 was a hallmark year for us. We were launching new routes and growing our fleet at rates not seen before. We were confident 2020 would be a year of new feats, surpassing those from the year prior. After all, travel and tourism had become the main economic drivers for the Philippines and many other countries.

But who would have known that before the first quarter even ended, the world of today would enter a historical period unlike any other? 

Read what Sheila Romero wrote about AirAsia Philippines in InBetween: Another shot for a brand-new day

The COVID-19 pandemic brought down one of the world’s most formidable industries in a matter of weeks. Almost overnight, everything took a pause, travel included. No government, no institution, and no individual knew what the way forward was. The global pandemic was essentially uncharted territory for all sectors. 

In highly stressful times, our inclination is to stay with what is sure and familiar. This is done to have some semblance of stability. It is, however, most unwise to do such a thing in navigating the unknown. Being in the uncharted is an invitation to review and rethink what has worked, to be able to tailor-fit the approach to the new environment. This is what we did at AirAsia. 

Safety protocols were prioritized and implemented rigorously when commercial flights returned.

Flying in a world at a standstill

The red light on global travel spelled entropy for all businesses in the travel industry. In AirAsia alone, passenger traffic plummeted 80% versus pre-pandemic records, consequently taking ticket and ancillary revenue into a nosedive. We needed to move quickly to cushion the impact of the pandemic. 

We identified new revenue streams, which included chartered flights for passengers and cargo. This helped defray upkeep costs to keep the company afloat. The gradual restoration of frequencies proved crucial to the recuperation of AirAsia; we zeroed in on the management of cash spending. The latter was made possible by ensuring that all commercial flights were self-sufficient and were flown at least at the break-even point. 

Having been awarded world's best low-cost airline by Skytrax for 12 years, AirAsia continues to deliver, safely bringing passengers all across the globe to their destinations.

Capacity management was rigorously assessed and studied in weekly meetings as the airline increased flight frequencies. These efforts resulted in an improved market share of 18.8%—a welcome growth compared to our 15.5% share pre-pandemic. 

We never stopped dreaming big, believing and making things happen. We welcomed the uncharted with fresh ideas — scary, yes, but exciting nonetheless.

All these initiatives proved effective in ensuring that we made it through every single day of the pandemic. But it was obvious to all of us that our flight business was not the sole future of the company, nor was it the thrust we needed going into the post-pandemic era. 

Rethinking what success is in the future

Even before the pandemic, AirAsia has been known around the globe as the world’s best low-cost airline — awarded as such by Skytrax for 12 years in a row. We have a fleet of 274 aircraft across six airline operations centers or countries. We fly to more than 246 routes both domestic and international. We currently have 20,000 Allstars or employees of different nationalities grinding nonstop for the company. These are amazing feats for a company that was started just 20 years ago by two middle-class men with one ringgit to their name. And yes, these are laurels we humbly wear today. Some may think the AirAsia group must be solid in growing its airline business since it is its stronghold, but we beg to disagree.

The author with Datuk Jafry Bin Ariffin, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment of Sabah, reiterating their collaboration on key projects in support of the path to recovery of Sabah tourism.

To rest and focus on your laurels alone is the beginning of decay. This is the reason we at AirAsia have ramped up our efforts to transform our business. And transformation for businesses like AirAsia always comes with diversification.

In 2016, AirAsia already knew it was going to be a digital airline. Just four years later, it launched the AirAsia Super App. Diversification is what led to the birth of this app. Via the AirAsia Super App, we are democratizing three major facets of travel and clustering them into an integrated ecosystem: flights and accommodation, delivery or logistics, and fintech. We are becoming a platform that brings MORE together for everyone. 

The AirAsia super app allows you to book not just flights, but rides, hotels, and other activities to make every trip more enjoyable.

What started out as a goal in 2016 is now one of the top three online travel agencies in the region. Our digital business grew to $1 billion in under two years, making us achieve a Digital Unicorn Status as reported by Credit Suisse. While the pandemic wreaked havoc on the aviation industry, we fast-tracked our non-airline verticals and transformed into one of three Asean unicorns. 

This milestone happened because we never stopped dreaming big, believing and making things happen. We relied on the creative dexterity of our management and teams in rethinking our ways and shifting our focus to a newly defined future for the business. So we welcomed the uncharted with fresh ideas — scary, yes, but exciting nonetheless. 

Be a lover of the new and the unknown. That is how you bring any business into the future. Dive into debates on “hows” and “whys” and nourish those who have the same passion for such. Change will always be fearsome, but as long as it is done with your values intact, nothing can lead you astray.

Values-based choices before and forward

AirAsia is marching forward indeed, with plans for transformation and diversification on a huge scale. But all of these are still guided by the same North Star we had some 20 years ago — our values. For our customers, we remain loyal to our DNA of democratized travel where a world-class flying experience can be attained by everyone. We even expanded this to other aspects of travel like accommodation, shopping, and rides, covering 360 degrees of the guest journey. 

Internally, we continue to champion shared growth and success between the company and all its Allstars. Our human resource continues to be our most valuable asset. We espouse a culture of excellence cultivated in a familial setting, where everyone is empowered to stand front and center to rock the boat with new ideas. 

These are some of the values we hold sacred. Values-based decisions are the propeller of AirAsia toward its vision. Our values are our differentiators from our competitors, and they are what show us who we are and who we want to be. 

The future as a lover of all things new

It is with this note that I end this piece: Be a lover of the new and the unknown. That is how you bring any business into the future. Dive into debates on “hows” and “whys” and nourish those who have the same passion for such. Change will always be fearsome, but as long as it is done with your values intact, nothing can lead you astray. 

The future is many things, but it is definitely not for those who dwell on what had worked and what had been done. It is for the ones flexible enough to pivot and redesign, even when it is not comfortable or convenient.