Sunday, August 30, 2009

Now, everyone can have fun too!

AT Air Asia, everyone is part of one big, happy family.

And everyone is also equal, or so it seems, as an employee’s name card simply states the division that he is in, without offering a designation. What you do is not as important as how well you do it.

Air Asia may be a budget airline but work ethics are a big deal and no expense is spared to ensure its employees receive the best training and are happy to come to work – after all, smiling staff equals happy passengers!

StarMag speaks to three people employed by the airline and it is pretty clear that all of them take pride in their jobs.

Talking less, doing more

Tony Quek hopes to run network management with air force precision!

Lt. Col (Rtd) Tony Quek, a graduate of the Royal Military College in Malaysia and formerly with the Malaysian air force, brings a reservoir of experience to Air Asia.

Born in Kluang, Johor, the 59-year-old is head of network management and is responsible for the regional operations centre, which oversees flight operations, crew and operational systems. He joined Air Asia in March 2006 as he was inspired by Datuk Seri Tony Fernandes’ – founder and group chief executive officer of Air Asia – vision to create an Asean airline.

“Fernandes gave me the opportunity to do things that people dream about and he is willing to push the extra mile,” he says.

When he joined the company, Air Asia was moving from the main terminal at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport to the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT). That was a massive operation to handle but Quek recalls, “I never took ‘no’ for an answer and just learnt to think off the cuff.”

“Network management is a matter of consolidating your assets. Although the methodology is military, the application is not. There are no estimates, being on time is the target, and we always set ourselves a much higher standard.”

When he joined the company, he saw problems in several areas that led to a lot of wasted time.

“In achieving efficient operations, I looked at reducing the amount of talking and increasing the amount of looking, listening and acting,” he says.

Airlines generally try to arrive and leave on time, but he challenged this thinking: “We were given a very hard time for flight delays, and I was given the task of rectifying this,” he says. “We must strive to be early, even if it is by one minute, and no passengers will complain if we leave early.”

Air Asia works on the formula that happy employees will ensure satisfied passengers. Here, passengers board the inaugural flight from KL to London at LCCT. AZMAN GHANI / The Star

Quek set out to find out which delays could be avoided, as opposed to the ones that could not – usually due to weather and air traffic control.

“When the plane came in and parked at the bay, we watched the bay. We clocked every activity to see which activity was delaying other sections. This allowed us to identify if it was people or processes,” he explains.

Quek’s “baywatch” approach allowed him to feed information into an excel spreadsheet. Today, this it has become a tool to which everyone has access to monitor flight schedules.

Quek recalls enduring days of no sleep during those times, or if he caught a nap, it was in his car!

Bo Lingam ensures that staff are well-trained and provide the best service to passengers.

Another system that he implemented was the use of the short messaging system for crew to check-in or report sick. Previously, they each had to rely on a computer to check-in or make a call, and he realised that not everyone had access to a computer, so the mobile phone was a better bet.

Getting this SMS procedure up and going was harder than it seemed: Air Asia’s crew come from all Asean nations, and there are Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Iranians, Iraqis, South Americans and Europeans too.

“My toughest challenge was standardising procedures for all countries. Because they are brought up in diverse backgrounds, it is not easy to persuade them to do what we want!,” he quips.

Best view in the world

While studying for a degree in performing arts and management in the United States, Selangor-born Norashikin Onn decided to take flying lessons during her free time.

She received her pilot’s training in Florida and obtained her pilot’s licence at the age of 22.

Norashikin Onn has been flying with Air Asia for four years and recently earned her extra stripe as captain.

Upon her return to Malaysia in 1993, Norashikin started the 4B Youth Flying Club together with some friends in Malacca. Then in 1996, she joined regional airline, Pelangi Air, where she worked for eight years, starting as co-pilot on Dornier228 and Fokker50 aircrafts and later, as captain on the Fokker50.

Norashikin joined Air Asia three years ago.

“I’ve always been amazed with flying and I knew this was what I wanted to do,” says the single, 40-something Norashikin who is now senior first officer. She recently earned her fourth stripe and can now captain an airbus..

“Being a captain means more responsibility which I am more than ready to take on,” she says.

Does she find it difficult working in a male-dominated profession?

“It has never bothered me. My male colleagues show me the same respect as anyone else so I don’t have any issues,” she says.

“In fact, women are good at discipline and we’re brilliant at multi-tasking. So this job is perfect for us,’’ she says, adding that other musts include good health and technical capabilities.

A pilot’s main concern is safety: “Even with all the training that we go through, we need to be prepared for any situation,” she says.

Norashikin has had her share of precarious situations.

“There was one local flight where we had to shut down one engine because the oil pressure was low and, thankfully, we managed to land safely. Last year, while passing through Hong Kong on the way to Shenzhen, there was a typhoon. It was a very bumpy flight and lasted quite a while,” she recalls animatedly.

While undergoing her pilot training in the US, Norashikin says she gained a lot of experience in flying through its many airports with different runways.

“It’s the tricky ones that tests your skills and you need to rely on your brains more,” she quips. In her book, the most difficult airports in the region are Indonesia’s Manado International Airport and Yogyakarta Airport as both lie in hilly areas, and Hong Kong’s notoriously difficult Chek Lap Kok airport.

Despite the occasional nait-biting moments, Norashikin isn’t ready to give up flying just yet. She is, however, completing her PhD in management at a local university and may rethink what the future holds in store when she has finished studying.

“I love working at Air Asia as I enjoy the culture and the fast pace,” she says, and having the big boss (Fernandes) come into the aircraft for a chat makes it all the more rewarding.

The biggest plus point?

“I think that it is a great accomplishment to be able to take passengers from one point to another. Plus, I have the best view of the world and I never get tired of that!”

Getting staff on board

Tharumalingam K, better known as Bo Lingam, started his working career with a reputable book publisher. Then in 1990, the KL-born lad moved on to the music industry and worked with EMI Music for three years and another eight years with Warner Music.

Coincidentally, Air Asia’s Fernandes was managing director of Warner Music at that time and when Fernandes left, he asked if Bo would like to join him at his new venture, Tune Air (the company which introduced the airline to Malaysians).

Bo, 44, recalls: “When I found out that it was a budget airline, I had no idea what I could do in such a company.”

Nevertheless, he jumped on board in November 2001 as ground operations manager and went on to become regional director of guest services and senior manager of purchasing and supplies. Bo now has the honour of being head of people quality and excellence, which involves hiring and training Air Asia staff with regards to service.

Moving from the music to the airline industry certainly wasn’t as cushy as he thought: “Being used to the offices at Warner Music, I found myself in a very run-down office at Terminal 3 at Subang Airport (Selangor), and it was a challenging job to keep passengers happy,” Bo recalls.

He laughs when he recollects an incident during his first week which he says was his “scariest moment”: 40 female prison wardens were scheduled to fly to Kota Kinabalu and the flight was cancelled because birds were sucked into the aircraft’s engine.

“All these big, female prison wardens barged into our office, demanding to get on the next flight,” he remembers. “I told them that there was nothing we could do as we did not have another flight that day.”

Bo says that he was threatened and even had his collar grabbed by one of them, but after being calming down with some food, the warden apologised!

These days, Bo handles emergencies involving mentally unstable, drunk and violent passengers. And moving 20,000 passengers per day through LCCT is no small feat.

“Despite the pressures, I love the excitement of coming to work every day – learning something different, and finding ways to see how I can do things better,” he says.

He is one of the few who has experience in running Air Asia’s various departments – with the exception of marketing and finance – and says that with a staff of 6,800 people, the company will need two years to get everybody to the standard that it is looking at.

According to Bo: “The quality that we look for when hiring people is attitude. They must have the willingness to learn, to experience new things ... and not just want a job.”

“We have one aim and that is for all of us to make our passengers happy, so everyone has to pull their weight in making this happen,” Bo says.

Having conducted numerous job interviews for Air Asia, he is adamant that young Malaysians are mostly unprepared for such interviews and some even turn up in slippers! And many lack the ability to think out of the box.

“These young people can work for years and not be able to tap into their creativity to get something done or done better,” he laments.

To motivate staff, Air Asia ensures that it constantly talks with staff to ensure a “feel good factor’’.

“People simply want to be acknowledged when they’ve done something well,” he says. “We have grown so big so quickly that this is essential.’’

For his contribution to the airline, Bo has been given the biggest honour by Fernandes – he will have an aircraft named after him! The special plane is currently being spray painted in Tolouse, France, and therefore, couldn’t be photographed.

“I was completely blown away ... it’s amazing to have a plane with my name on it. This is also for the many people who have worked tirelessly alongside with me,” Bo says.

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