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‘Planes on the ground’: AirAsia’s chief growth officer on how it adapted to Covid-19


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

March 26, 2021 | 6 min read

When Covid-19 hit, no industry felt the impact more than airlines. But, never one to stay grounded for long, AirAsia took the opportunity to pivot into the technology space, launching media and tech solutions for its customers. At the Digital Transformation Festival, The Drum caught up with AirAsia’s chief growth officer, Ravi Shankar, to find out more.

air asia plane image

“There’s only so much you can do when your planes are on the ground,” says AirAsia boss on the brand's Covid transformation

When the threat of Covid-19 became known, air travel was among the first businesses to suffer, as international travel ground to a halt. Many brands have continued to struggle amid the ongoing restrictions enforced by the virus, and players like Virgin Atlantic have been forced to accept bailouts. Yet AirAsia quickly became the little plane that could – and is a success story of digital transformation in the face of adversity.

Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus, AirAsia was already on a mission to transform, with an attempt to digitize and diversify the business known as AirAsia 2.0, already underway.

“When we started the journey [of AirAsia 2.0] we really wanted to create a super app that has travel and lifestyle built into it, not just the airline,” says chief growth officer, Ravi Shankar, as part of The Drum’s ongoing Digital Transformation Festival.

“We have always been about serving the underserved. AirAsia has always been about democratizing the airline business. So now everyone can fly, we had to look at where else people were being underserved. That’s why we started to initially focus more on things like our food business,” he says.

Shankar says the ultimate ambition is for the app to become a go-to for anyone interested in travel and lifestyle. “It’s a broad vision. But when we started the airline that would allow anyone to fly, we achieved it, so now it’s about moving towards the same vision in other sectors – for everyone.”

However when it became clear that Covid-19 was going to be a serious issue, Shankar realized “there’s only so much you can do when your planes are on the ground.“ He says the sudden impact of the pandemic forced the brand to accelerate its earlier plans at breakneck speed.

In the last year, AirAsia has launched a slew of new offerings as a result, including a new digital interface known as Unlimited, a chat room, an e-commerce platform, and a food delivery service to tend to its customer's needs on and off the ground.

Speaking on the development of the new Unlimited platform, Shankar says, “it’s our vision that Unlimited will become the Amazon Prime of the travel world.”

“It’s a collaboration with a partner, so it’s not just AirAsia but other airlines too. But it will show our airline compared to others, and then you can book through the interface. Using our data, the platform is a subscription-based service, so you can buy an unlimited pass for long-haul travel, for example.”

“And then we also launched Snap, which means you can also book hotels and flights in one payment to get the best price possible.”

However, with the travel industry still on shaky ground, Shankar explains how AirAsia has branched out into other sectors.

“Our food delivery service AirAsia Food first launched in Malaysia, then we recently also launched in Singapore. In Malaysia we have a fresh food business, where we deliver fruit and veg and other groceries, so we’ve been really trying to sustain the business while also creating platforms for engagement.”

AirAsia also recognized it had a role to play in supporting small business, in keeping with its ethos of being accessible for all.

“We created our campaign, ‘SOS’, which is all about saving small businesses, and we created a shop within our AirAsia ecosystem. It has a very simple onboarding process for merchants and businesses to sign up, and then we take care of the rest and start selling their products online.”

Shankar explains that all these additions have culminated in the development of AirAsia Chat. A one-to-one chat platform like any other, except it draws upon AirAsia’s diverse clientele to connect them over unique experiences. “You have the Bali-travellers, the food-lovers, the sky-divers,” says Shankar, “all in one place.”

“What we did is create these chat rooms and integrated them for people on the same flight. So if you book your flight through the AirAsia app, you can connect with anyone else who did the same. It also allows us to send relevant messaging, informing them of any changes or announcements and so on. It’s really a community.”

Shankar says that AirAsia is now hoping to broaden its food delivery services to other locations, saying the brand has even trialled delivery by drone to consider expanding into more rural areas.

On what we can expect from the airline side of things when international travel becomes more feasible, Shankar says:

“You will see better enhanced touchless operations, more digitized operations at the airport and on the aircraft. On the AirAsia side of things, you will have a good booking experience, you will enjoy your time in the app interacting with people, and buying a lot more than just AirAsia flights. And hopefully, there are a couple of new businesses which I don't know I am not sure if I can announce yet, but there are some exciting things yet to come.”

Shankar spoke as part of The Drum's Digital Transformation Festival, a global online event packed with expert insights and ideas designed to help marketers accelerate their digital strategies. You can watch The Drum's full interview with Shankar below.

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