It is the world’s best low-cost airline for the 11th consecutive year as conferred by the Skytrax World Airline Awards, the airline industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. Its business model has democratised air travel, awakened a segment of society, and brought them to places near and far since 2001, having been resuscitated from a debt-ridden unit of a government-linked company. It is natural to deduce AirAsia as an airline, after all it operates in the aviation space across multiple countries, from Malaysia to Japan. Although the assessment is true to an extent, given that ferrying passengers is its bread and butter, it has grown beyond its mantra of Now everyone can fly. It is an airline on the verge of becoming a travel and lifestyle provider befitting the digital age.
“It isn’t just about flying from one point to another; it is about fulfilling the needs and requirements of our passengers and make it a seamless journey for them and to ensure that on every touch point of their lives, we are able to provide the services and products that they need,” Aireen Omar says of the rationale behind the group’s diversification. “In this day and age where information is at their fingertips, people expect to have a seamless experience so they can enjoy things better.”
Today, AirAsia’s webpage and app offer hotel bookings and duty-free shopping. The group recently ventured into music by establishing Red Records. At Mid Valley, AirAsia’s in-flight meals are now a compelling option for lunch as the group brings its maiden restaurant Santan to land-bound masses. Its fintech service provider Big Pay is regulated by Bank Negara Malaysia and counts remittance as one of its expanding key features. Five years from now, non-airline business is expected to contribute 60 per cent to the group’s top line from around 20 per cent currently.
The embarkation on building a digital lifestyle ecosystem is part of their effort to leverage on their assets effectively. One asset, in particular, can’t be quantified by ledgers but is a prerequisite to the digital transformation. “The greatest value of our assets is the data that we have and how can we use that data to create something bigger than what we are right now,” she says.
Aireen ascent mirrors AirAsia’s metamorphosis and the greater economy’s rapid shift towards digitalisation. At the group, her changing roles have taken her from being CEO of AirAsia Malaysia to being president of Red Beat Ventures. She joined AirAsia in 2006 as director of corporate finance.
“I have been blessed and lucky to be able to grow with AirAsia and to lead that growth into a new era that is relevant, where people are embracing the digital economy and understanding and becoming more data driven and so forth,” she says, adding the thought of breaking the glass ceiling never crossed her mind.
“Instead, I was so focused in terms of how do I get better myself? How can I be better than what I am today? How do I keep learning and how do I actually beat the expectations and see if I can do anything different that would be very beneficial and contribute better? So as a result, I suppose that naturally leads to being able to create new areas and be able to lead in that new creation and so forth. I never really thought about whether I have broken the glass ceiling; I just focus on delivering and see what I can do better.”
It is at Red Beat Ventures, the group’s venture capital subsidiary whose portfolio also includes the group’s non-airline business such as Big Pay, Big Life, Teleport and Santan, that she is helping to piece together and shape the digital lifestyle ecosystem bottom-up through diligent investment into start-ups.
“When we invest in a start-up, I look at the services and the products that they create or they provide, what kind of business and use cases that we can use from there, not just what they have been delivering or what they used to deliver. I see what the potential can be and how it can fit in with the overall ecosystem,” she explains, adding her role is accompanied by its own set of challenges.
The biggest challenge is to create a business from scratch, to create new things, and to ensure that what we have created remains competitive, and that we continue to lead the way, to ensure that we leverage on the strengths of our ecosystem.Aireen Omar
An ecosystem is a sum of many parts, a stage that requires many actors and actresses to ensure its success and sustainability. For anyone looking to join AirAsia in this accelerated period of growth, she advocates humility, diversity and an open mind.
“There are so many things going on and so many things that we need to learn. Even though we are of a certain stage where people may think we are successful, we still feel that there is a lot to do,” she says. “It is also about the need to embrace a diversity of people with various backgrounds and nationalities because they give different insights. These insights can be very valuable, especially since we are a big ASEAN player.
“Thirdly, to focus on how we look at what is available within the whole ecosystem, how can we make the most of it, and how this can help grow that business or areas of expertise that we are asked to. It is about having an open mind and that is really, really key. And I see that when new people come in and they have an open mind, when they are focused, they will be very, very successful.”
To Aireen, mindset is key. It has penned the way her career is playing out. Hence it is no surprise to hear her advice for women in conjunction with this year’s International Women’s Day is centred on this leitmotif.
“Think of yourself as an individual and how to be the best version of yourself. Then, gender becomes irrelevant. Equip yourself with knowledge. Know your subject matter well and make full use of it. Knowledge is a very powerful tool. Nobody can challenge you if you know your facts.
“Pick your battles and always aim to beat the expectations. You will be pleasantly surprised with what you are really capable of, and the many opportunities that suddenly present themselves to you when you give more than 100 per cent. There will be many challenges along the journey we choose. It is therefore important to stay focused, persevere and be firm on your principles. Life is precious. Remember to be human. And fulfil that human potential – not just monetary potential.”