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AirAsia On Par With Singapore Airlines

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AirAsia chief executive officer Datuk Tony Fernandes was all glee on Monday when the low-cost carrier began the first of its seven daily flights from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

The reasons were many. At the top of the list was that his dream of total open skies between Singapore and KL had been realised. He compared the challenge of opening the route — which used to cost about S$400 (RM960) return on full-service carriers — to “Nelson Mandela fighting for freedom”.

“It was ridiculous that the most expensive route in Asia was KL-Singapore,” he said.

Now, the fares could be as low as S$60 return on budget carriers, which also include Tiger Airways and Jetstar Asia. There are some 14 flights daily from Singapore to KL.

The plane that Fernandes greeted on the tarmac on Monday was 85 per cent full, with many Singaporeans on board. From this group, Fernandes met a couple who flew to Kuala Lumpur on their way to Langkawi. Which thrilled him no end.

“Singaporeans certainly don’t think about flying to KL to take a flight,” he said. Indeed, flying to KL allows Singaporeans to tap into a web of budget connections offered by AirAsia and its long haul arm, AirAsia X. Both launched new routes last week — the former to Trichy, Tamil Nadu; the latter to London.

Does Fernandes think Singaporeans will fly to KL to switch planes?

“I think it’s beginning to happen,” he said. “Singaporeans are very savvy. They are very loyal to their wallets. Malaysians, too,” he added with a laugh.

The company recently scrapped its fuel surcharges, which Fernandes admitted was a big risk, but according to him, sales tripled.

“Singaporeans are also adventurous. The young in Singapore want to travel. They want to see Borneo, Siem Reap … We provide that connectivity, so I don’t think it will be hard to convince them.”

Route-wise, short-haul carrier AirAsia has covered all the countries within its range. It will focus on flying to more destinations in China and India. There’s more potential for AirAsia X to go global.

“I’d love to see AirAsia X fly to Africa — KL to Nairobi. And, one day to the (United) States. Maybe my last route will be KL-Rio.”

That’s Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which is more than 24 hours by plane away from KL.

But Fernandes is accustomed to dreaming big, taking risks and opening routes to places most people don’t know about. Like Tiruchirappalli, or Trichy, which he had heard about at a funeral. He decided to fly to Trichy because of the town’s religious significance and the fact that a “lot of Indians from Malaysia and Singapore are from there”.

His dream is for the seven-year-old AirAsia to take on Singapore Airlines — though not all of it. “SQ is the best airline in the world without a doubt,” he said. “My aim now is to tell people that we are as good as they are … in the back end. I think we can be as good in the economy section. That’s my goal before I leave my job as CEO.”

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