TAA chief takes on further China role

Thai AirAsia (TAA) boss Tassapon Bijleveld has quietly put on another hat, seemingly a larger one with a dragon embroidered on it.

The 47-year-old Thai is now tasked to look after the burgeoning Chinese market for the no-frills AirAsia group’s affiliated airlines including the long-haul AirAsia X as chief executive of AirAsia Greater China.

TAA’s chief executive assumes the role played by Kathleen Tan, the Singaporean who left her post as AirAsia Group’s commercial head and senior vice-president of Chinese operations early this year to become chief executive of AAE Travel.

AAE Travel is a joint venture between AirAsia, the largest low-cost carrier (LCC) group in Asia, and Expedia, the world’s largest online travel company.

“My job is to oversee the growth of all AirAsia airlines in China, which offers vast market opportunities as more and more Chinese are flying,” Mr Tassapon told the Bangkok Post.

China’s importance is growing as the world’s most populous nation embraces the LCC concept largely introduced by AirAsia back in 2004.

About 20% of group revenue comes from its Chinese operation, with 15 Chinese cities and territories including Hong Kong and Macau served by AirAsia from bases in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, with more than 300 flights a week.

Over the past decade, AirAsia has carried 8 million Chinese, nearly half of its total passenger tally.

Mr Tassapon said his new role will not take away his focus on TAA, now Thailand’s largest LCC.

He said AirAsia is not too preoccupied with Chinese market growth, pointing out that 80% of the group’s revenue still largely comes from countries in Asean and their domestic flights.

“We have 601 million people in Asean whom we can still work with,” he said.

But AirAsia is continuing to grow its Chinese network. For instance, TAA alone is working to add three or four Chinese cities to its network next year after launching service from Bangkok to Kunming, its eighth Chinese destination, this Nov 15.

AirAsia’s Chinese expansion will continue to zero in on its standard core strategy of offering value for money with its tag line “Now Everyone Can Fly”.

“We are probably not the world’s best airline, but we know if we provide appropriate services, reasonable fares, safety and quality, the Chinese, like anybody else, will fly with us,” said Mr Tassapon.

One of AirAsia’s key Chinese strategies is to serve cities that do not have excessive competition from other carriers.

Asked whether the time has come for AirAsia to set up an affiliate airline in China to serve domestic markets with a Chinese partnership, Mr Tassapon said that is not a priority.

“We have yet to find Chinese who share our business philosophy, but we are not pushing hard on it,” he said. “It comes when it comes.”