Thanks for a better country, AirAsia

DECEMBER 9 — If a research was conducted today to identify what or who contributed most to national integration over the last 20 years, do not be surprised if the result shows AirAsia. 

In case there are fears this is native advertising through the machinations of a public relations agency, be rest assured it is not.

Columnists who taunt Nazir Razak one week, do not turn to curry favours with his close friend Tony Fernandes the next week. Plus, there is the class divide. We do not travel in the same ocean, lest we cross paths in the night.

As insurance — not Tune Protect — several choice complaints about AirAsia will be listed below, for posterity.

However, as patriotic Malaysians it would be indecent not to thank Mr Fernandes and the tens of thousands of people — many who have struggled through Covid-19 enforced grounding of flights — for incontrovertibly shifting the nation’s imagination over two decades.  

The pandemic, the wave of intolerance to AirAsia’s presumed overbearingness to refunds and flight cancellations, along with criticism of the bloated prices in a time of the Sarawak state election, which flagged the need to remind the airline of social value and contribution.

In my undergraduate days at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in Bangi, the Borneo students would travel — if they did — once a year home as Malaysia Airlines tickets were expensive. Flying was a privilege in Malaysia before and only those with the right work, family or political allegiances flew.

Interestingly, my only trip to Ireland was made cheap because of a Ryan Air connection to Cork via Stansted Airport — a lengthy snow delay and being bused, turned out to be a preview to our AirAsia experience to come. 

An AirAsia plane is pictured on the tarmac of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang August 20, 2019. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
An AirAsia plane is pictured on the tarmac of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang August 20, 2019. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

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Fernandes, inspired by Ryan Air’s Stansted operations a few years later, videoed the scenes and came back to Malaysia and replicated it, with a little help from his friends.

And this idea for our region is far more meaningful, because as much as Ryan Air succeeded in Europe which is connected by land therefore road and train travels are alternatives, Maphilindo (Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines) is an archipelago of more than 20,000 islands. The countries are divided, let alone divided from their neighbours by shallow waters.

Air travel was available long before but until low-cost airlines emerged in the region, not the least Malaysia, it was prohibitive.

As clichéd as it is, the AirAsia slogan Now, everyone can fly, rings true for Malaysia.

Travel technologies and change

Mobility is the shaper of modern progress.

The incubation of Asian nationalism, central to decolonisation, was also a beneficiary of steamships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It brought nationalists like Indonesia’s Tan Malaka, Vietnam’s Nguyen Ai Quoc and Philippines’ Jose Rizal to the empire's continent, to acquaint with the necessary to bring the fight home.

While those ships brought the colonisers to Asia, the widening of access of commercialisation with faster steamships through the Suez allowed more to travel for less — even if cooped up in overcrowded vessels — and invariably assisted these young men to realise freedom for their people.

Similarly, the formation of the nation state around the world was delayed equally by social evolution of societies and the lack of transportation technologies to conceive geographical unions.

The United States has a strong identity, and it owes a lot to transportation.

On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford officiated the conjoining of both Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory, Utah. With it both the east and west coast of a massive America were welded into a common future through rail.

Thus, the United States was only divided by a week, the time for a train to go from New York to San Francisco.

Transportation’s critical role, especially when technology and business innovation widens mobility for the masses, can never be overstated.

Malaysia’s social evolution

Malaysia is challenged by being two substantially sized lands separated by the largest sea in the world.

Until AirAsia came around, Malaysia Airlines was not getting the job done. AirAsia dived right into the domestic market and filled those planes literally like sardine cans and got them from point A to B.

The social value of commuting millions of Malaysians around the country bridged knowledge gaps and upped empathy levels.

Sibu, Tawau and Miri are no more just dots on the national map for many West Malaysians thereafter.

While political leaders bemoan the flight prices for the ongoing Sarawak elections, it is the cheap AirAsia flights for years before which stoked the fires of change with more interaction and travel by local political cadres and operators. 

We’ve got so used to low cost flights that we expect them to be low in order to please us without a consideration of how it plays for AirAsia.

Or how expensive domestic flights were before AirAsia.

AirAsia remains connected to Malaysia’s political awakening, from Hindraf 2007 through to GE2018, all which coincide with the era of its operation maturity. With every flight, all kinds of hopes, ideas and opportunities disembark.

Tony the businessman and no frills-flying

While AirAsia provides a spectacular social good, it does so on the basis of profit.

And here is where the lifestyle of its owners, the relative comforts they enjoy upsets people.

As a socialist, I have multiple misgivings about capitalism’s inherent nihilism but the rules of the game have to be respected for we broadly agree to utilise the free market to spur common prosperity.

Like all conglomerates, they want to get the best for themselves and leverage the adage too big to fail.

Leaving the personal excesses of its owners aside, the nature of no-frills airlines is to maximise volume, or in aviation speak, load. Turnaround ensures planes are up ferrying people rather than down with frustrated consumers staring at stalled planes on the tarmac.

The overenthusiasm to reduce costs does spill over to previous errors like charging people for customer care calls or the new case of AirAsia X refusing to pay refunds.

This is for MAVCOM (Malaysian Aviation Commission) and the transport ministry to resolve on behalf of regular consumers who do not have the means or authority to take one a region-wide airline. As much as AirAsia provides, like all large businesses they must be kept accountable.

After everything being said, Fernandes and friends are in for business, and they will not pursue an untenable venture out of their personal devotion to the cause. The losses the airline currently experiences concerns all.

Airlines are not built overnight, and the supply chains they command and dictate are invaluable to the whole economy.

The worse flight is still better than no flight

Those waits at the gate for AirAsia flights are legendary. Two hours, three hours, or just wait for the announcement. To fight for space in the overcrowded old low-cost terminal — a literal bazaar — before KLIA2. To squeeze into Asian measured seat spaces and legroom for a full three hour flight, and not go berserk is free training to Zen or a guaranteed path to paid anger management classes.

Millions of Malaysians have disaster stories to pour out at bars and mamak bistros. But here’s the thing, millions have travelled with AirAsia.

My sense of obligation to East Malaysia rises with every visit since the first to Bintulu in 2007. I had my first trip to India and the only one with my mom shortly before she passed away. I’ve sat down by the side of a Penampang bar after hours with relative strangers and learnt about how they looked at life and random Malayans.

And all of that, thanks to low-cost flights of AirAsia. And not applauded enough is their sterling safety standards over the years, getting millions to where human interactions await them.

Probably if that set of gentlemen did not propose the airline in 2001, someone else would have. Or maybe we would have an offshoot of Tiger Airways or Cebu Pacific.

But in this story of ours, as it stands, that role to bring a physically separated country together in numbers has been AirAsia's.

The ride continues to be turbulent, for both AirAsia and the Malaysian people. Respect for the symbiotic relationship between airline and the people is central to sustained success. 

This column endeavours to remind the people that though this is not paradise, the people would surely rather it not be turned into a parking lot. It’s complicated, of course. 

And maybe for the airline to remember that meeting people halfway is not at the gate but at check-in, and an apology goes a long way in Malaysia.

But seriously, thank you.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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