Geoffrey Thomas talks to the new head of AirAsia X.
There are “fascinating possibilities” ahead for AirAsia X, including a return to flying to London, says new chief executive Benyamin Ismail.
Mr Ismail wants to bring more innovation to a group that has been a trendsetter in Asia during the past decade.
He has had a deep passion for airlines “since he was a kid” and now collects model planes as a hobby — as well as the 27 A330s in the AirAsia X fleet.
“I have always loved airlines and when I left university I applied to AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines but didn’t get a job at the time,” Mr Ismail says.
His childhood was largely spent in Perth at Christ Church Grammar School as a boarder and then at Curtin University, and included visits to Perth Airport to plane-gaze.
Mr Ismail is candid that AirAsia X, which is the medium to long-haul division of AirAsia, has been through a rough patch.
“Yes, it had grown too fast and plane orders were too aggressive but that has been addressed,” he says.
Mr Ismail came into the AirAsia fold from investment banking.
He was an investment banker for AirAsia, and Aireen Omar (chief executive of AirAsia Malaysia) and Tony Fernandes (founder and chief executive of the AirAsia Group) were impressed and hired him.
“There is a to-do list but we are on top of it and are now looking to spice things up,” he says.
One notable thing on the to-do list was the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Operational Safety Audit, which the airline achieved last month.
“This was an accomplishment made possible by the hard work and synergy of our staff from various departments who worked tirelessly for the past 14 months in preparing, reviewing and improving all of our operational processes and implementation.
“Not only has this allowed us to meet the required standards, it has also allowed us to further strengthen the safety and efficiency of the organisation.”
According to Mr Ismail, all units of the AirAsia Group are, or will be, undertaking the audit.
He denies that the airline is planning any cuts to Perth services from 11 weekly to seven.
“We are analysing the market but I want to grow the business. Sure, there has been some slowing of demand but I am working with the team to see how we can stimulate that. My heart is in Australia.”
And something that is dear to the hearts of thrifty-minded Australian travellers is the airline’s low-cost flights to London and Paris, which were axed in 2012.
The flights were extremely popular but the high cost of fuel and the wrong plane type — Airbus A340 — made them uneconomical.
Mr Ismail says the right type is a new, more capable version of the A330.
“We will get two late next year and they can fly non-stop to London.”
But the airline may not fly non-stop, preferring to stop at a European destination such as Vienna to link into a low-cost airline hub to offer myriad connections.
Mr Ismail is not naming any airlines but says talks are under way with a couple of candidates.
Also on the radar from November is Hawaii via Osaka.
“We have had a fantastic reaction to Hawaii. To start with, four services a week (are planned) and we will grow from there,” Mr Ismail says.
And the airline’s business class is growing in popularity: “The flat bed sells well and we are looking to expand the numbers of seats on offer.”
Mr Ismail is also focused on improving the passenger experience on the ground.
“I want to reduce response times to issues. We haven’t always been as attentive as we should have,” he notes.
With Mr Ismail in the pilot’s seat, AirAsia X is looking sharper and that is good news for Perth travellers.