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Dare to dream : The secret to AirAsia’s success

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People are central to the success of AirAsia

In my former life, before my love of travel really took over, I lived and breathed the corporate world.  I was heavily invested in people leadership and improving the culture of the teams and areas in which I worked.  I’ve sat through my fair share of corporate strategy days, love-ins as we always liked to call them.  There were always new ideas and new things to implement.

Consultants would be brought in, paid a ton of money to tell us how to engage with our own people, spurting forth all the latest weasel words that would supposedly prove to be the silver bullet.  All of it, particularly with a smidge of hindsight seems like it was pushing round pegs into square holes.  It’s always so much harder to retrofit anything.

As such, nothing much surprises me anymore when it comes to the world of HR, people initiatives and culture.  I still read widely on these subjects and the wheel often turns in the same direction, re-hashing old ideas and making them new again.  But do they really work?  Can a set of initiatives really turn the culture around, especially when they are so entrenched?  Why is it so hard to do so?  We could talk on this subject forever and still never find the perfect solution, or can we?

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the working heart of AirAsia.  Based in Kuala Lumpur, RedQ (an early sign that things would be different here), is a fantastic example of how a new company, set up with the welfare of its people at the centre of everything it does, actually makes a difference and builds a true, positive working culture.

air asia hq

Through a few simple ideas implemented by teams of people who don’t sit in offices, but work in with the people they are responsible for,  AirAsia sets itself apart from so many other corporations.  It’s got shades of Google and other hip tech companies, but its brand is now its own, recognised not only as an airline for the people but known for having one of the most forward-thinking, authentic people engagement strategies in the corporate world.  The proof, as they say, is in the building.  With a heavily unionised workforce, they remain a content group of people.  The culture was developed early and nurtured.

Related reading: Three cool things to do in Kuala Lumpur

AirAsia history

To understand the ethos of AirAsia, all you need to do is go to the heart of owner Tony Fernandes.  A highly successful music industry executive, he switched careers and industries and did what most little boys dream of.  He bought an airline.  Malaysian born, he came from humble beginnings and has always stayed true to his roots.  In 2001, he purchased AirAsia, a struggling airline.  For one Malaysian Ringitt, he became the proud owner of two aircraft and debt totalling 40 million ringitt.

Within one year he had completely vanquished this debt.  Significant changes were made to the AirAsia model, with ticket butts no longer being used and food and beverages became ancillary services.  This was to be a budget airline where customers could secure a base rate ticket price, without having to pay for add-ons they didn’t need.  This was the start of the revenue making sideline of AirAsia where anything other than the physical payment for the flight was an extra.

airasia planes

It was also the start of something much deeper when it came to staff.  In the early days, to help with costs, staff became multi-taskers.  The person who checked you in was most likely the same person who assisted with boarding.  It created a culture of cross-skilling, one that is evident today.

Tony Fernandes dared to dream, and in doing so, he opened up the world of travel to a whole new world of people.  In doing so, he had kicked off a business that would eventually become the largest low-cost airline in the world.  Along the way, he bought a football club and a low-cost hotel chain.

work stations

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The first question I asked when I walked into this building, located in the airport precinct of KLIA2 in Kuala Lumpur was “how do I get a job here?”.  It’s a common question, and when you look inside this six-story building, housing approximately 2,800 permanent workers, you will understand why.  Named RedQ by a staff member as part of a naming competition, it’s a nod to both the company’s central control point and the colour of the brand.  It’s a mini-city, set up to provide services that support those who work here.

We are taken on a tour of RedQ by Faizul Rusli, an employee of AirAsia since 2002.  Faizul commenced his employment at AirAsia as one of the first batch of flight attendants.  Later he transferred his skills into the corporate communications area, followed by government relations and now as part of the People and Culture team.  This is not an unusual career path.  With a “OneAirAsia” mantra, all staff are encouraged and supported to cross skill and look for opportunities outside their usual role.

The building and therefore its people, are quite isolated here in terms of proximity to all services that might be ordinarily accessed by employees during their breaks.  In a city environment, workers might leave the office during lunch to run some errands and pick up some lunch.  KLIA2 airport is a long way from the city of Kuala Lumpur, a distance not possible when you only have a short break in your workday.  Whilst there are other locations closer than the city, the pure logistics of getting in and out of the airport precinct in a timely manner is not something that staff really want to do on their break.

Everything has been therefore done here with the staff’s wellbeing in mind.  For those struggling to get jobs done at home, like laundry, there’s a serviced one here.  This is particularly useful for cabin crew, who spend a lot of their time travelling.  Here, they can simply drop their laundry off and have it picked up on their return.

With the AirAsia team known as the “Allstars”, there’s also room for the “LittleStars” too.  To assist those staff with small children, a daycare centre operates from 8-6pm.  If a parent is still working after 6 pm, the flexible working arrangements here mean the children can stay with them at their work area.

Other useful services include an ATM and a 24-hour convenience store.

Read my AirAsia Premium Flatbed review here

Office environment

This is one cool office.  Whilst on first glance it looks a little industrial, with its polished concrete floors, glass and gleaming stainless steel, there’s plenty of pops of colour and plenty of fun.  There are beanbags and other funky areas used as breakout areas, somewhere to eat, chat or even meet with colleagues.

There are no offices in this building except for some dedicated, themed meeting spaces and the boardroom.  Even CEO Tony Fernandes sits in a corner area that is totally open.  His collection of baseball caps is on display along with other special memorabilia.

where the ceo sits
CEO Tony Fernandes open-plan workspace

Then there’s the slide!  Linking a higher floor to the ground level, it’s an unusual way of reaching the ground, and one that elicits an enormous scream from me as I try it out.

There’s also a fun games room where traditional games like pool mix with video games.

play area games room

Personal services

Haven’t had time for a haircut?  No problems.  You can visit the hair salon on-site.

barber shop in airasia

There’s also a beauty studio, which operates as a great location for cabin crew to run through tutorials and get advice on how to apply makeup specifically to suit flying conditions.

makeup lessons

Food services

It will come as no surprise that food is important in such an environment.  There’s no shortage of options, with a blend of Indian, Malaysian and vegetarian cuisine here.  There’s also a cafe that brews up their own gourmet blend of coffee.  All employees are given a 10 ringitt subsidy for food every day.  The credit is added to their staff card, which is simply shown at the food venues.  With the food very reasonably priced, most staff could, and would, eat within the amount of the subsidy every day.  That’s an additional perk not common in many organisations.

Medical services

Medical services can be expensive in Malaysia, but they are also known to be time-consuming.  Having to find the time in your work day to make an appointment, find a park and the time taken to get to and from can be stressful.  Tony Fernandes agrees with the adage of “if you take care of people, people take care of you”, and so ensured that medical facilities were included in the building.

A medical clinic operates from 9-6 pm and has doctors on standby out of hours.  Continuing the program of subsidies, AisAsia also provides a contribution of 1,000 ringitt per employee every year for use with medical appointments.  With an average visit costing 50-100 ringitt, this is a very generous offering.

air asia medical centre

Much of the workforce here is desk-based, increasing the potential for repetitive injuries.  A recent addition to the medical services facilities is the Physio Lab which is free for all staff to use.  A psychologist is also brought in to assist with staff consultation where required.

air asia physio air asia review

Wellness services

For those wanting to keep fit and healthy or just blow off some work frustrations, a full-size gym is available.  It was being well used on the day I was there.

airasia gym

Feeling tired?  Why not find one of the three sleeping pods and catch 40 winks.  These pods are large enough to fit two people in here, although probably not recommended at work!  They have a retractable lid allowing workers to shut themselves off completely from the activity around them and take a snooze.  It’s not something I could personally do in a work environment, but I know plenty that would use this in a heartbeat.

snooze time

On the rooftop, there’s more than just an incredible view of all aircraft landing and taking off.  Newly developed, with some areas still under construction when I visited, it’s a great addition to an already exciting staff offering.

Here you can run on a specially built running track, in amongst the greenery of the gardens and with that amazing view.

running track on roof

Or, you can do a round of mini-golf or play basketball or football.  In the mornings there are rotating sessions of yoga and boot camp too or you can come up here to eat your lunch on many of the seating areas provided.

golf course on the roof air asia

The facilities to look after staff don’t stop with showers, lockers, a parent’s room and even a sauna.


When AirAsia built their headquarters, there were several stray dogs that lived here.  Showing that their philosophy covers all living things, not just people, they built a DogQ instead of turning them away.  Every day, the dogs are walked in the precinct, ensuring that they are living a healthy, well cared for life.

air asia dog house

Corporate Social Responsibility

AirAsia follows up its care of its own people with care for others and investing in the community.  With a specific focus on assisting the underprivileged, it links back to the AirAsia tagline of ” now everyone can fly”, a constant connection point for everything that Tony Fernandes does and how he operates his businesses.

The Air Asia people

I’ve left this part until last, not because it is the least important, but because all the above supports the story.  The people of AirAsia, the “Allstars” are integral to every strategy, every vision that Tony Fernandes has had.  It’s also why now I will personally look at AirAsia differently, and not just as a low-cost airline.

awards air asiaDare to dream is alive at AirAsia, as the CEO and his team drive and support the business through the empowerment of their staff.  Examples abound of the incredible and sometimes unbelievable career paths of the team.  Former Senior Brand and PR Executive for AirAsia Hannah Paranihi regaled stories of how one man, once a baggage handler, became a pilot. The dream is real.

People who work in finance can become involved in more creative activities.  Cabin crew can aspire to be pilots.  As a former accountant who has worked in some significantly different roles and now writes travel stories, it’s an environment I can both appreciate and support.

dare to dream airasia

AirAsia a success story

Low-cost carriers have come a long way since the concept was first commissioned.  They have broadened their routes, improved their marketing and their service.  Many, like AirAsia, have won awards, validating their importance both in and to the travel market.  Many, however, still beat the stigma of the low-cost moniker.

What it does prove however is that there is a market for everyone.  Tony got it right when he said “now everyone can fly”, as the introduction of AirAsia into the Malaysian market meant people who once thought travel was a pipe dream could now actually do it.  Amongst its awards, AirAsia has been named by Skytrax World Airline Awards as the world’s best low-cost airline for 10 years straight.  Today, AirAsia flies to 130 destinations across 28 countries.

Looking for hotels to stay at in Kuala Lumpur? Check out my reviews on these great locations.  You can also try Trip Advisor for costs and availability.

Dorsett Kuala Lumpur

The Saujana Hotel 

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