Monday, July 24, 2017

I am not in a rush to fly international out of India: AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes

Tony Fernandes, group CEO of Asia’s largest low-cost carrier AirAsia, has set his sights on integrating all of the airline’s operations in Southeast Asia into one holding company and creating a single airline entity that would represent the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region. “If you look at it, we are probably the most successful Asean brand,” Fernandes, 53, says in an exclusive interview to Forbes India on the sidelines of the 52nd International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget. At present, the different entities of the AirAsia Group include AirAsia Berhad (Malaysia), AirAsia Indonesia, Thai AirAsia, Philippines AirAsia, AirAsia X, Indonesia AirAsia X and Thai AirAsia X. Outside of the Asean countries, there is AirAsia Japan and AirAsia India, which, since its start in 2013, has had a bumpy ride. “India is a country I don’t want to screw up [in]! I want to do it right,” Fernandes says, going on to talk about AirAsia India’s shift in strategy: From eyeing international operations to focusing on the domestic market. Edited excerpts:

Q. Your India operations have been plagued by controversy and slow growth. What went wrong?
Many airlines have come, made a lot of noise in India and disappeared. It’s all about doing it properly and doing it right. For me, the India story is all about when a taxi driver who picked me up from New Delhi airport told me that it took him four days to go from the capital to Chennai. I was shocked. I asked him how much did it cost and what price would he would pay to fly, and he gave me a figure. We are about two-thirds of the way in making him fly.

There has been so much opposition to us, some of it our doing and some mistakes of our own.

We have had so much noise on this airline [AirAsia India]—we were involved in things, with issues concerning the Tatas, that we weren’t even involved in. But the Tatas have been great partners. They have stuck in with us and we have stuck in with them.

India is not a simple country. It’s a complicated country and further complicated by very aggressive competitors. I have been in 10 other countries and we have never had this kind of reaction: The level of trying to get rid of us is much worse here in India.

Q. Can you elaborate on the ‘mistakes of our own’?
Well, actually, only one I think, which I don’t want to talk about. Everything else we have done well. We are three years old in India, that’s baby steps for an airline compared to Jet Airways that has been around for more than 20 years. I’m really happy with the way we are going. We have 10 planes now and will get to 20 aircraft next year. India is a country I don’t want to screw up [in]! I want to do it right.

Q. What are your plans for flying to international destinations from India?
Initially we thought we couldn’t make money in the domestic market, but now we know that we can. I thought domestic was crowded and we were late into the game. But we are not. In some markets, we are leaders. We are the lowest cost airline—we are lower than IndiGo, which is quite impressive. So, international is not such a rush for me anymore. But when it happens, which would be sometime next year, we would offer a good mix of domestic and international routes.
24/07/17 Anshul Dhamija/Forbes India