AirAsia CEO aims to put airline on a new trajectory

Leveraging customer data from its 65 million-plus passengers, strategy is a digital push that exceeds in scale that of regional budget airlines like Lion Group and Cebu Pacific

This Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 image made from video shows an AirAsia plane at an airport in Perth, Australia. Passengers on the Indonesia AirAsia flight from Australia to the holiday island of Bali described a panicked flight crew announcing an emergency and oxygen masks dropping from the ceiling after their airliner lost cabin air pressure and rapidly descended. (Channel 9 via AP)
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Tony Fernandes, the co-founder of AirAsia, is seeking to transform Asia’s biggest budget airline into an asset-light, digitally focused firm after the $1 billion sale of its leasing business, in an effort to foster sustainable growth.

AirAsia, which pioneered budget air travel in Asia along the lines of Ryanair in Europe, is now building a sprawling empire that includes a payments company, logistics firm, food and beverages brands and a loyalty programme.

Leveraging the profusion of customer data from its 65 million-plus passengers, the focal point of the strategy is a digital push that exceeds in scale that of regional budget airlines like Indonesia’s Lion Group and Cebu Pacific of the Philippines.

AirAsia will also be going head-to-head against flag carriers such as Singapore Airlines, which is ramping up investments in digital technology.

The goal is to offset the volatile earnings from the cyclical airline business.

“The biggest asset is our data,” Mr Fernandes said. “And we’re going to monetise that data over a series of joint ventures in three kinds of pools.”

That includes turning its loyalty programme points into a more formal currency through an initial coin offering, building a bigger logistics business and growing its content offering.

In the near term, however, analysts say the move by one of Airbus’ biggest global customers to part-lease its current and ordered fleet of 500-plus planes could hurt its profits and leave it exposed to the risk of higher lease rates.

“The leasing arm was a stable low-risk business,” said Ngoi Se Chai, a partner at Hong Kong-based Oaklands Path Capital Management. “Now that that’s sold, earnings will come down and become more volatile. I think they sold something they shouldn’t have sold.”

While the sale proceeds from the leasing business will be used to reduce debt, the bulk will be paid out as special dividends, potentially limiting the upside in a stock that has more than quadrupled since hitting a seven-year low in late 2015.

“The amount of money generated from this exercise could almost wipe out AirAsia’s entire debts, so it would appear a positive move,” said Shukor Yusof, founder of consultancy Endau Analytics, but he noted it faces risks associated with higher leasing rates.


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Leasing had accounted for around 20 per cent of AirAsia’s revenue, with a similar share earned from non-ticket items like baggage fees and food sales.

The aim is to lift revenue from so-called ancillaries by 12 per cent this year.

AirAsia plans to launch remittance and lending products in South East Asia, through its BigPay debit card and mobile app in Singapore after the recent launch in Malaysia, BigPay’s group CEO Chris Davison said.

But for now, the company’s non-flying revenue lags global low-cost leaders like Spirit Airlines in the United States and Ryanair and Wizz Air in Europe that receive 40 per cent of revenue from ancillaries, said Jay Sorensen, president of US-based consultancy IdeaWorksCompany.

He said AirAsia’s food, in-flight Wi-Fi and loyalty programmes were good offerings but its approach in pricing add-ons was not maximising revenue because it only offered two bundled choices rather than three.

“The best practice today is to present three choices at the same time, based upon a good, better and best model.”

The digital push is front and centre as Mr Fernandes restructures AirAsia into a listed group that oversees stakes in multiple airlines in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, India, Japan and soon Vietnam and China and digital ventures rather than having the listing based on its Malaysian airline.

Combined, AirAsia forecasts the digital businesses will account for 7.6 per cent of revenue this year, nearly half of its ancillary sales.

Former CEO Aireen Omar, who became deputy group CEO in January, is overseeing the non-airline businesses in a single entity that will ultimately seek a US listing.

Corrine Png, CEO of research firm Crucial Perspective said AirAsia could triple its share price if it can successfully collect and monetise its Big Data.

“AirAsia’s current valuations are low as investors see it as a cyclical airline,” she said. “However, as its long-term revenue and earnings growth prospects improve, equity investors will start to value AirAsia like a growth stock.”