Whenever I find a brand that matches its offerings to my requirements for value, I become not only a brand loyalist but also a brand ambassador. For years I was a Marco Polo member and sang the praises of Cathay Pacific to anyone who would listen. Then about 15 years ago I moved to Malaysia. Initially I flew Cathay, even though it meant going in the completely opposite direction to Hong Kong to pick up a connecting flight to Europe. But after a while, probably around the same time as I had run out of miles and therefore could no longer get an upgrade, I looked around for someone else to build a relationship with. The obvious choice was Singapore Airlines and I dabbled for a while but the hassle of changing flights in Changi and the extra 3 – 8 hours that added to my return trip meant this wasn’t really an option.
Next I tried BA for a while but they were in the process of pulling out of Malaysia so the only other option was Malaysian Airlines. I was reluctant, really reluctant for a number of reasons. MAS was horribly managed or rather mismanaged at the time. Safety was an issue, coffee shop talk was negative, morale was at an all time low, rumours of imminent sabotage were rife and the numbers suggested a severe crisis was due. But by then I had no choice as MAS was the only airline flying directly to London.
It was a gradual process but in the first year I flew a lot of domestic and international miles. I learnt the system and was able to get the best out of the airline which allowed me to experience all classes. It wasn’t so bad and by the end of the year, I was a Malaysia Airlines loyalist.
When AirAsia arrived I dismissed it as a little upstart, out of it’s league and destined to go the way of Pelangi Air and many others. The LCC model wasn’t something I believed in. Since when was travel no more than stuffing as many bodies as possible into the smallest plane that could fly the distance required? But a couple of years later I had to fly to Macau and the only flight that matched my schedule was an AirAsia flight. I swallowed my pride, apologised under my breath to the MAS 747 taxiing past the terminal and boarded the brand new Airbus, so crisp, clean and shiny compared to the 25 year old MAS Boeings and their tired interiors.
As I boarded, I was greeted by a smiling face and enthusiastic personalities that was contagious and impossible not to like, especially compared to the glum and tired looking MAS crews. Since that December day in 2007, I’ve become a regular AirAsia customer but every time I chose AirAsia, my choices are made based on price – RM680 for my wife and I to fly to Singapore and back compared to RM1710 on MAS and so on. I justify delays by reminding myself of the price and the savings. I reluctantly accept the fact that I have to pay (more and more) to check in a suitcase. I bite my tongue at the instructions that say I cannot take my own drinks on board. And this is key, I don’t have a relationship with AirAsia. And with the exception of 2 trips where I flew the night before a meeting, none of the trips have been time sensitive. To me it’s simply buying a commodity. Perhaps this is the way the business of flying is headed. Perhaps LCCs are the new legacy carriers and this is how all flying will be.
If this is the case, then fine. But how does a LCC like AirAsia build brand loyalty and the far more profitable repeat business critical to brand building? I’m fortunate in that I’ve not been subjected to one of the delays just about everyone I know has been subjected to when flying AirAsia. But when I do, I’ll immediately look at the other LCCs plying the same routes and I will switch in a heartbeat. As far as I am concerned, there is no brand loyalty with AirAsia. So essentially, the company model is based on the hope that there will be enough demand enough of the time on enough of the routes. If this is the case, then AirAsia doesn’t need to be a brand.
Perhaps this is enough for the aviation business to survive, and perhaps thrive. But judging by the LCCs in the US, I doubt it. What do you think?