Two things about AirAsia that its group CEO Tony Fernandes is most proud of are (gasp) the airline’s inflight food and (clap) that it hires a lot of female pilots. From the creator of the tagline, "Now everyone can fly," soon everyone can eat "sambal" without flying.
The idea of airline food being so delicious that it should be offered on the ground is laughable to most people, but Air Asia Group’s CEO Tony Fernandes is dead serious about opening a fast-food restaurant, likely to be in its home market Malaysia first, that will serve the carrier’s inflight dishes.
“Our food is fantastic. We believe in it so much that we’re going to start a fast-food restaurant out of it. It’s called Santan,” he said on Larry King Now aired last Friday.
Santan means coconut milk in Malay and is a popular ingredient in Malaysian and other Southeast Asian food. It is also the name of AirAsia’s inflight menu, which was launched in 2015.
Skift could not squeeze more details about Santan at present, AirAsia’s spokesperson saying, “We will be making an announcement soon.”
The low-cost carrier does serve one of, if not the most, extensive on-board menus featuring comfort food that is to regional passengers what pasta is to Italians. Passengers can pre-book meals to enjoy greater savings. Local delights include its Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak, a coconut rice dish served with sambal (chili paste) and beef stew, and Bukhara Chicken Biryani, chicken tenders cooked in hot and spicy sauce. The airline said it leveraged data from more than 400 million guests carried over the years to create the menu.
“Food is a great unifying factor across the region,” said Fernandes during a Santan Food Festival in 2017, an inflight food tasting event attended by more than 200 media members and influencers throughout Asia.
“What we are doing is bringing the wonderful flavors of ASEAN into Santan to create a unique food experience, with the vision of replicating the on-ground gourmet experience onboard. The flavor, profile and pricing of inflight food has always been a challenge but we believe that with Santan, we can create the first restaurant brand in the sky that is both tasty and affordable,” he said.
Now the first restaurant brand in the sky wants to go down to earth, although competition will no doubt be fierce. Just think of the local hawkers throughout the region, be they in air-conditioned food halls or along the streets, who have built lifetime followers because of authentic tastes and cheap prices and without so much of a brand.
And though Fernandes praised his food as fantastic, last month, Malaysia’s most famous chef, Chef Wan, went on Instagram to lambast what he said was poor quality of the sambal served with the Nasi Lemak at AirAsia’s premium lounge. (For some context, locals take their ‘sambal’ very seriously, as it can make or break that coconut rice dish.)
MORE FEMALE PILOTS
Apart from being proud of his inflight food, Fernandes is also mighty proud of his female pilots.
He said the airline has 250 female pilots, the highest percentage of female pilots than any carrier in the USA.
“I went to my chief pilot and asked why there are no female pilots and he came up with the most ridiculous answer never to be repeated in public,” he said.
“The other day [we made] history — the captain was female, the co-pilot was female, the cabin crew, the chief engineer were all female.”
Air Asia’s staff work harder but they are paid more, he said, adding there is no airline of AirAsia’s size, (22,000 staff) that is without a union. Pilots fly “a little bit longer — all allowed and approved,” while cabin crew clean planes as opposed to the airline hiring cleaning staff.
Getting the right people, breaking down the silos, having clear communications is the most “under-rated” aspect of running a successful business, he said. “People talk about branding, but they always talk about external branding when the most important is internal branding,” he said.
To a question from another reader on which American airline impresses him as they all seem bad, Fernandes said, “JetBlue. Their people seem to like working for them. The crew is great both on the ground and in the air. The product is great. It’s a little bit hybrid…full service or low cost carrier, but from a flying member, no product in America comes close to that product. It’s their passion for what they do,” he said.
Photo credit: Yummy food landing in Malaysia. Joshua Paul / Associated Press