{{w|Tony Fernandes}} at Airasia fair
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I read an article about Tony Fernandes, the CEO of AirAsia, in The Economist today that got me thinking. Thinking about the last few articles I’ve written about United Airlines, RyanAir and Southwest Airlines – on how they make money off their customers – what what works and what doesn’t.

There’re a lot of airlines in the US and Europe can learn from Tony Fernandes and AirAsia (+ Azran and AirAsiaX). Here’s how the article in The Economist ended.

“Mr Fernandes says that he came to the industry with no preconceptions, but found it rigidly compartmentalized and dysfunctional. He wanted AirAsia to reflect his own unstuffy, open and cheerful personality. He is rarely seen without his baseball cap, open-neck shirt and jeans, and he is proud that the firm’s lack of hierarchy (very unusual in Asia) means anyone can rise to do anyone else’s job. AirAsia employs pilots who started out as baggage handlers and stewards; for his part, Mr Fernandes also practises what he preaches. Every month he spends a day as a baggage-handler; every two months, a day as cabin crew; every three months, a day as a check-in clerk. He has even established a “culture department” to “pass the message and hold parties”.”

I wonder when Glenn Tilton last flew Economy Class on United Airlines and when Michael O’leary helped load the baggage on RyanAir…if they did, they probably would learn not just a lot more about their employees, but also their customers, don’t you think?

I wonder why is it that the concept of servant leadership is lacking in the airline industry?
Especially in the Western world. We know that exceptions like Southwest exist, but why don’t others do it too, when they see this working out well?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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  • http://www.djbassociates.webs.com D Bentley

    Ryanair’s Mr O’Leary certainly has spent time as a check-in clerk on the same occasional roster basis that you mention and possibly as cabin crew and baggage handler as well.
    Unfortunately, I don’t think it helped him understand either the staff or the customers. There’s scant evidence of that. At the end of the day you are what you are.
    I hope it works for Mr Fernandes.

    • http://simpliflying.com Shashank Nigam

      @D Bentley: You’re right. Even if Mr O’Leary picked up some ground rules (pun intended) from the ground crew, I think it was back to square one when he reached his office. Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s a very smart man when it comes to running a profitable airline, and creating buzz. But not at keeping his customers happy.

  • Ronald Kuhlmann

    Nothing. Most airline managers have little or no clue as to what goes on further down the line–nor do they especially care to experience it firsthand. I have been to IATA AGM and to events sponsored by all three alliances and have no illusions that any one of the legacy CEOs is ready to get down and get dirty. Some, like Tilton, don’t even care to socialize much with their peers but most are friendly, receptive and generally pretty savvy folks. But they do not define their roles in the same way as Fernandes or Kelleher–who, by the way, often did such jobs as well. While it may sound like a real eagerness to experience the various tasks being done, these are companies that have a personality as a leader and part of the ethos and the promotion is in the open display of this kind of personal exposure. I think it has inherent value but it has even more publicity cache. When you put showmen in charge, you get a show.

  • Alan Wang

    I’ve been on many Air Asia flights and Ryan Air as well in Europe. There is a clear difference in the level of service in Asia/Europe compared to the United States and I am reminded everytime I take a domestic US flight. A small part of this is perhaps the job security behind the unions which allows low performers to stay on the payroll. The latter part is what you mentioned which is culture and how Tony Fernandes runs his airline. When the leader at the top takes time to ground himself and stay close to the operations that comprise the business, not only does he gain knowledge but he further inspires his employees to work twice as hard for him. Being in the trenches builds loyalty and of course real knowledge about how the operation is being run. Gary Kelly of Southwest airlines has been known to carry a similar culture. If you take a Southwest flight, you will find the airline crew much more pleasant than other US flight crews. They are simply happy to be a part of a company that cares about them as employees. Similar to the hotel industry, you can run all the six sigma sampling for defects you like, but quality starts with an inspired employee group and that starts at the top.

  • http://simpliflying.com Shashank Nigam

    @Alan: You have it absolutely right – it all starts with the employees, because they’re the ones interacting with the customers at every touchpoint. And as you mentioned, another airline that does it very well is Southwest. http://simpliflying.com/tag/southwest-airlines/

  • David Bentley

    Ryanair’s Mr O’Leary certainly has spent time as a check-in clerk on an occasional roster basis and possibly as cabin crew and baggage handler as well.
    Unfortunately, I don’t think it helped him understand either the staff or the customers. There’s scant evidence of that. At the end of the day you are what you are.
    I hope it works for Mr Fernandes.

  • Kieran Maloney

    Interesting. I worked for a car rental company for fourteen, fifteen years and one of the attractive ideas was “visible management”. Head quarters staff spent a week each year on “front line” duties, meeting staff and customers. It is very helpful in ensuring that management can stay “grounded” in the reality of what their employees do and what their customers experience.
    One concern that managers have is that they won’t be able to “do” the front line job and their credibility will suffer. My experience was that front line employees were generous in their understanding and enjoyed showing management how they do their jobs.
    Well done Tony Fernandes.

  • Guy Lean

    I was at school with Tony and played Hockey together, i can tell you he is focused and down to earth. He is a true leader i am sure he will be a leadership style to follow in the future

  • Samuel J Gamaliel

    I think, the servant Leadership model of Tony has already made the employees to work with same culture. When the top brass practices what he preaches, it is not much difficult to make the turn around in the operations of the organization. Tony’s efforts are appreciated and certainily an inspiration to others too @ this time of economic recession.

  • Steven Frischling

    Shashank,

    Tony Fernandes is a wise man and I think he has much he can offer the industry.

    Back in February I wrote an article on Flying With Fish ( http://www.flyingwithfish.com ) entitled: “What Would You Do If You Ran The Airline?” which can be read here:
    http://boardingarea.com/blogs/flyingwithfish/2009/02/11/what-would-you-do-if-you-ran-the-airline/

    #7 in my list was corporate culture, which stated that all management must go ut and work in the field to get the perspective of those they are managing. With many airlines having a great divide between management and labour , there needs to be a greater understanding of each job that is performed and how it is vital to the airline.

    Look past United’s issues, I think this policy may go further with airlines on the brink of disaster, such as Alitalia.

    Happy Flying!

    Steven Frischling
    Founder
    The Travel Strategist
    Web: http://www.thetravelstrategist.com
    Blog: http://www.flyingwithfish.com
    Twit: http://www.twitter.com/flyingwithfish

  • ajun

    do you have any history about air asia open sky policy?

  • http://www.facebook.com/sweigert Bruce Sweigert

    Back in the days of the ESOP, I spent a few days in China with then CEO Gerald Greenwald. When he was boarding the plane back to the US, the front cabin was overbooked and he volunteered to sit in economy to make room for the revenue passengers. The Chinese staff were flustered and wondered how they could possibly let the CEO sit in the back. The station manager had to convince them that it was OK and Greenwald ended up sitting in the back. At that time, the boarding priority for a company officer was higher than any customer and he had the right to keep his seat. It was a small gesture (and the right thing for the company), but it is something that did not always happen in those days.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sweigert Bruce Sweigert

    Back in the days of the ESOP, I spent a few days in China with then CEO Gerald Greenwald. When he was boarding the plane back to the US, the front cabin was overbooked and he volunteered to sit in economy to make room for the revenue passengers. The Chinese staff were flustered and wondered how they could possibly let the CEO sit in the back. The station manager had to convince them that it was OK and Greenwald ended up sitting in the back. At that time, the boarding priority for a company officer was higher than any customer and he had the right to keep his seat. It was a small gesture (and the right thing for the company), but it is something that did not always happen in those days.

  • http://www.titidirectonline.co.uk/ski-snowboard-goggles Skiing Goggles

    nice

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