(© Marja Flick-Buijs / sxc.hu)
I AM unabashedly a fan of AirAsia, and what it has done not only for travel in Malaysia, but the entire region. A colleague of mine said if there’s anyone who deserves his datukship, it’s Datuk Tony Fernandes.
AirAsia’s mantra, Now Everyone Can Fly, has really taken millions places, many of whom have never flown before. The airline is not without its critics. One ticklish example is the perversion of its motto to Now Everyone Can Wait because of the frequency of flight delays, particularly in its early years. I’ve often been a victim of AirAsia delays myself, but it’s a price and risk I’m willing to pay, in exchange for sheer affordability. After all, I’ve also suffered delays on trips with either Malaysia Airlines (MAS) or the world-renowned Singapore Airlines (SIA).
Counting the ways
There was a time when, as an entrepreneur, my business struggled with various crises. There was the dotcom bust, the 11 Sept 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre, and the Asian SARS crisis. Throughout all of this, AirAsia provided me with a real means of cutting costs with regional travelling.
At that time, MAS and SIA monopolised the flights between Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Singapore, and charged an arm and a leg for their seats. So I welcomed my low-cost, weekly flights from KL to Johor Baru, followed by connecting taxi rides across the Causeway. I saved up to RM150 each time, each way.
(public domain / wikipedia.org)
As my business expanded to Brunei, I flew to Labuan before taking the 30-minute connecting ferry to Bandar Seri Begawan, halving my travel cost compared with the code-sharing flights operated by MAS and Brunei Airways. And when AirAsia finally secured landing rights in Bandar Seri Begawan, I greeted the news with joy — I could send my staff to projects there, saving as much as 70%.
When I attracted a new investor based in Zhuhai, China, into my company in 2003, I was delighted that AirAsia started flying direct to Macau less than a year later. Zhuhai is just across the border from Macau, a 15-minute taxi ride. It cost me as low as RM250 for a return trip. The 10.45pm trips allowed me to get into Zhuhai early in the morning without missing an hour of work. This saved me a lot, as the trips grew more frequent while I attempted, unsuccessfully, to expand my business to China.
AirAsia was allegedly discriminated against by the Singapore government adamant on protecting SIA, despite the rhetoric of an open economy. And so I cheered for the airline when it flew its inaugural flight to Changi Airport in December 2008. This is despite the fact that I no longer take the route on a regular basis since disposing of my interests in the corporate world.
But AirAsia did not just help me save costs for my fledging business. It allowed me to take my wife and then also my daughter on holidays in the region which were previously much less accessible or affordable.
At a time when I had large personal debts, which peaked at RM2 million, I could still “reward” an understanding wife with holiday trips to some of the best destinations in Southeast Asia.
In 2002, after Bali was bombed, as other airlines cut their flights to the city, AirAsia persisted with the route and offered instead 100,000 seats costing zilch. You just had to pay for taxes then, no fuel surcharge. I managed to secure two “free” tickets to Denpasar for one of our most memorable holiday trips abroad.
Angkor Wat (©L-Bit / wikipedia.org)
I have had the opportunity to visit the ancient world wonder, Angkor Wat, twice on AirAsia. The airline not only made the route affordable, it created a route that previously did not exist. Today, Siem Reap is just a three-hour flight away, short enough even for a weekend getaway.
For two years after my daughter was born, she travelled absolutely free with us. We kept diligent watch over brand new destinations launched by AirAsia and planned trips throughout the year. My daughter’s passport for the first 24 months of her life probably has more immigration stamps than mine did in the first 24 years of my life.
And now I’m booked on the inaugural flight from Kuala Lumpur to London on the airline’s sister company, AirAsia X, to attend a conference in March. This is costing me RM2,000, and I am saving more than a thousand ringgit.
Revolutionising air travel
What I love about AirAsia best, though, isn’t so much what it offers travellers directly, but its revolutionary impact on the region’s airline industry. MAS’s subsidiary, Firefly, and SIA’s subsidiary, Tiger Airways, and Jetstar, and its subsidiary Valuair, would never have emerged if not for AirAsia having first shown the way.
Now, whenever I travel, say to Penang, I’ll open up two websites — Firefly and AirAsia. I compare their flight schedules and prices, and pick the most appropriate flight times at the lowest cost. In fact, I had an embarrassing encounter with Fernandes after his talk organised by InvestPenang in August 2008. I was asked how I was returning to KL that evening, and I had to confess to taking a Firefly flight, in front of the Penang Chief Minister, no less. But it was the cheaper flight at the time I booked!
An AirAsia plane departing from KLIA (© jyi1693/wikipedia.org)
I love AirAsia because of the competition it has given to the old airline monopolies, and the new competition it has created for the airline industry in Southeast Asia. The Kuala Lumpur International Airport was built in the late 1990s at a time when its capacity for 25 million passengers was scoffed at as being overly ambitious. But within the next five years, AirAsia alone is expected to ferry 25 million passengers a year. That is how much the airline has changed travel for Malaysians over the past decade.
Hence, as long as it continues its spirit of innovation and competition, I will continue to fly AirAsia to affordably travel to more exciting places in the region. Otherwise, who knows, another new upstart that can revolutionise the industry might just take my breath away and win me over.
Tony Pua doesn’t own any shares in AirAsia although he watches over its performance. Pua has Tony Fernandes’s handphone number, but they are not drinking buddies. Pua doesn’t fly free on AirAsia, although the airline sponsored a ticket each to Macau and Bali for his Charity Golf Tournament in October 2008. Pua is sure that Fernandes can do better than that. And Pua is certainly no crony of Fernandes’ since there is nothing the former can offer except to buy air tickets at bargain basement prices.