In­vest­ment banker turned air­line chief, AirAsia X CEO Benyamin Is­mail shares with justin ng on the democrati­sa­tion of air travel, value cre­ation for pas­sen­gers and the bond with his chil­dren

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Benyamin is­mail was first in­tro­duced to op­por­tu­ni­ties at AirAsia while he was burst­ing a lung or two dur­ing a gru­elling boot camp in Pe­tal­ing Jaya. They say the early bird gets the worm. Benyamin got his at 5am. The in­duc­tor was a cer­tain Aireen Omar, then head of cor­po­rate fi­nance and in­vestor re­la­tions. She is now deputy group CEO (dig­i­tal, trans­for­ma­tion and cor­po­rate ser­vices). “AirAsia was a client I was deal­ing with at CIMB and it was there that I was in­tro­duced to Aireen,” he re­veals, adding he was some­what scep­ti­cal to ven­ture into a new role and in­dus­try such as avi­a­tion.

He might have rea­son to be ap­pre­hen­sive. He was at­tached to CIMB In­vest­ment Bank at that time and spe­cialised in debt cap­i­tal mar­kets. Avi­a­tion was an as­pi­ra­tion that he never acted upon. “Grow­ing up, I wanted to also be ei­ther a lawyer from watch­ing the TV se­ries L.A. Law or an ar­chi­tect from my artis­tic pas­sion and skills I have,” says the 41-year-old. “But like many other chil­dren, I have al­ways been fas­ci­nated by the avi­a­tion in­dus­try and how an air­craft can fly in the sky.”

His ar­dour for fly­ing seems a ne­ces­sity as much as it is a plea­sur­able pas­time. Benyamin used to fly alone as an un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nor as the cir­cum­stance dic­tated due to his par­ents’ work place­ment. When AirAsia X in­au­gu­rated flights to Hawaii, he flew along­side guests to Hon­olulu and wel­comed them to the Pa­cific is­lands made fa­mous by Elvis Pres­ley. Now he bonds with his chil­dren through col­lect­ing air­craft mod­els and spot­ting planes – a hobby he en­joyed as a young­ster.

None­the­less, ap­pear­ing un­daunted, he went ahead for an in­ter­view and a fur­ther meet­ing with Tan Sri Tony Fer­nan­des. That sealed the deal as he left in­vest­ment bank­ing for AirAsia in March 2010 to take up the role of head of in­vestor re­la­tions, be­fore ris­ing to group head of in­vestor re­la­tions, cor­po­rate de­vel­op­ment and im­ple­men­ta­tion. When AirAsia X’s pre­vi­ous CEO Azran Os­man-Rani ten­dered his res­ig­na­tion in Jan­uary 2015, Benyamin as­sumed the po­si­tion of act­ing CEO and was ap­pointed fully-fledged CEO a few months after.

Four years into his cur­rent ca­pac­ity, Benyamin main­tains he is still as driven as the day he first set foot in the air­line’s of­fice. There are the ev­ery­day chal­lenges that keep him on his toes. There are also the two el­ders, in the form of Fer­nan­des and Datuk Ka­marudin Mer­a­nun, who have taken him un­der their wings. “They are both very charis­matic and in­spir­ing lead­ers and their pas­sion con­tin­ues to mo­ti­vate me ev­ery day,” he says.

AirAsia X is un­like many other air­lines, be it full ser­vice or even its own short-haul si­b­ling AirAsia, due to its busi­ness model. The pi­o­neer of low-cost long-haul air­line came into ex­is­tence fol­low­ing a re­brand­ing ex­er­cise com­pleted in Septem­ber 2007 from Fly Asian Ex­press. The maiden flight took off in Novem­ber 2007 at the now-dis­man­tled LCCT and landed in a small re­gional air­port in the Gold Coast, Aus­tralia. To­day, it op­er­ates the eight-hour flight out of KLIA2 to Coolan­gatta once a day, seven times a week.

11 years in, Benyamin says AirAsia X has proven “the low­cost long-haul air­line prod­uct is a vi­able busi­ness model”. He points out that as of last year, the air­line has car­ried over 40 mil­lion guests from its main hub in Kuala Lumpur to China, Ja­pan, South Korea, Aus­tralia or even Hawaii in the US with some of the low­est fares in the re­gion. “Air travel to­day is not a lux­ury for the af­flu­ent few,” he says. He is right. AirAsia X is the only Malaysian air­line that trans­ports pas­sen­gers non-stop to ex­otic des­ti­na­tions such as Hokkaido, Ja­pan and do­ing so af­ford­ably, even if a ski hol­i­day re­mains elu­sive for most peo­ple.

If im­i­ta­tion is the sin­cer­est form of flat­tery, the air­line has blazed the trail for any­one that wanted to fol­low in its foot­step in the re­gion. Scoot is one of them. While oth­ers rely on code­shar­ing with af­fil­i­ated air­lines, the AirAsia group utilises its clout in con­nec­tiv­ity, via lo­cal sub­sidiaries and re­gional hubs, with over 130 des­ti­na­tions in the re­gion.

“When I first came into this role, I viewed it as an ex­cit­ing but very chal­leng­ing role as the air­line and in­dus­try in gen­eral was fac­ing tur­bu­lence. To­gether with my lead­er­ship team, we have had to make some dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions to man­age costs and en­sure we main­tain stream­lined op­er­a­tions. It was re­ally chal­leng­ing back then, but within


a year, we man­aged to turn­around the air­line and re­turned to profit,” he re­calls the chal­leng­ing times at the start of his reign when jet fuel prices were ris­ing in tan­dem with crude oil prices.

But as oil prices be­gin to as­cend past US$80 a bar­rel after a lean cou­ple of years, it will prove to be a road block for the air­line to ma­noeu­vre around to achieve con­sis­tent prof­itabil­ity, es­pe­cially with ring­git is as weak as it is. Ac­cord­ing to the quar­terly fi­nan­cial re­port ended 30 June 2018, AirAsia X posted a pre­tax loss of RM64.78 mil­lion. Fuel ex­penses were RM440 mil­lion, com­pared to a to­tal rev­enue of RM1.05 bil­lion and a net oper­at­ing loss of RM99 mil­lion.

“We have some fuel hedg­ing in place, but we are al­ways cau­tious,” Benyamin says, adding fuel is one of the largest cost com­po­nents for any air­line. Jet fuel on av­er­age was US$89 per bar­rel in the pe­riod of April 2018 to June 2018.

“While we can’t con­trol the fuel price, what we do best is to keep our cost low by im­prov­ing in­ter­nal pro­cesses and keep our fares com­pet­i­tive to stim­u­late re­gional de­mand… with no com­pro­mise on safety and com­fort,” he says. To en­tice po­ten­tial trav­ellers, the air­line has in­vested in dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion in or­der to cu­rate bet­ter prod­ucts and ser­vices for them. They have the free­dom to pick and choose the op­tional prod­ucts and ser­vices that suit their needs. A good ex­am­ple is the air­line’s award-win­ning Pre­mium Flatbed, which is very pop­u­lar on flights over five hours. Fur­ther­more, it in­ex­haustibly ex­plores new routes to “at­tract new guests while keep­ing things in­ter­est­ing for our loyal guests,” Benyamin says. “Ad­di­tion­ally, we al­ways look at ways to pro­vide a bet­ter fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for our guests through con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment in ev­ery­thing we do.”

Guests can cer­tainly look for­ward to a bet­ter fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with the air­line. The long-haul group, in­clu­sive of In­done­sian and Thai af­fil­i­ates, put pen to pa­per an or­der of 100 Air­bus A330­neo wide-body air­craft worth US$30 bil­lion ear­lier this year. Air­bus says the A330­neo will be equipped with a state-of-theart cabin and in-flight tech­nol­ogy to pro­vide for height­ened com­fort and re­laxed am­bi­ence dur­ing long flights. The new planes will re­duce op­er­a­tional and main­te­nance costs through bet­ter de­sign and aero­dy­nam­ics. The greater ef­fi­ciency and range will po­ten­tially al­low AirAsia X to re­vive flights to Eu­rope. “How­ever, at this mo­ment our fo­cus re­mains pro­vid­ing the best con­nec­tiv­ity in our core mar­kets across Asia and Aus­tralia,” Benyamin says. “En­abling peo­ple to have great-value travel mo­ments is what drives and mo­ti­vates me to con­tinue what I am do­ing with my fan­tas­tic Al­ls­tars.”



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