During the second interview as part of the FlightPlan: C-Suite Week event developed by Inmarsat Aviation and APEX, the BBC’s Aaron Heslehurst interviewed Tony Fernandes, Group CEO at AirAsia. Fernandes spoke in detail about how the group is leveraging the fundamental characteristics of an airline to expand its reach beyond the passengers’ flight.
AirAsia’s super app covers everything from ride-hailing to delivery services, financial technology, online health solutions, travel products and more.
Group CEO Tony Fernandes believes AirAsia is the first airline in the world to apply for a digital banking license, having recently done so with a consortium of 28 strategic partners. He hopes the move will further expand the million-strong customer base of its other fintech offerings, which are based on inclusivity. He explained, “It’s an obvious thing if you think about it, remittances and foreign currency are where Travelex makes all its money in the airport.”
He also said the move makes sense because it makes use of Airasia’s second-greatest asset after its people: Data. “We have much better customer data than Uber, where you can make up your name. You can’t make up a name when you fly. We also have credit card information and we have the loyalty dimension.”
Regarding its people, Fernandes is proud that the super app also creates plenty of job opportunities. He has long-predicted that digital transformation was going to result in many redundancies. This process was drastically sped up thanks to the pandemic, but since AirAsia had partnered with Google to create a tech academy in January 2020, he said, “Many of my pilots now are data scientists, some of my cabin crew are UX people.”
Training people is “in an airline’s blood,” he explained, and highlighted the fact that AirAsia had already set up its own academy for pilots, engineers and cabin crew before introducing courses for its marketing people, among others. Thus, Fernandes called AirAsia’s tech academy a “natural extension” of its operation, and revealed it has now become a business in its own right. “Many companies, including the government, central banks and others are using us to really reskill their staff during this fourth industrial revolution.”
Some of these moves into different verticals will actually lead to an improved passenger experience. Take AirAsia’s foray into vaccine passports: “We’re using COVID-19 to really drive governments to change the whole immigration process,” Fernandes said. “The Malaysian government and some other Southeast Asian governments have approved us to provide the security key for COVID, so if you register that you’re flying AirAsia, you’ll automatically be checked to see if you’ve got your two vaccinations. The information will be put into the app and then we’re working with immigration to enable them to use our app.”
“But then I said, well if we’re going this far, let’s pre-clear people too, so they don’t have to wait a long time and go through the normal security lines,” Fernandes continued. “We think visualization is a fundamental part of changing the airline experience.”
Another area he believes is ripe for improvement is on-ground ancillary activities, which Fernandes thinks would benefit significantly from closer collaboration between airlines and airports. “With all the data we have, we can help airports point passengers to items that they’re likely to want, that can then be delivered to the aircraft,” he suggested. “If there’s ever a time at airports and airlines need to work together, it’s now.” He added that airports clearly feel the same, as they have been more open to such ideas since the onset of the pandemic.
Fernandes believes the majority of the improvements to the passenger journey will be seen and felt primarily on the ground and in the airport rather than in the air, but he did express the opinion that in-flight Wi-Fi will become a critical component of an airline’s offering. “It’s all about the digital lifestyle.”
You can access Tony’s interview and others from the event here.