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AirAsia's Tony Fernandes to rely on Kathleen Tan to pilot India take off

NEW DELHI: Tony Fernandes, founder of Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia, which has six airlines under its fold, will be banking heavily on a woman to ensure the success of his impending India launch. Not surprisingly, months ahead of launching AirAsia Indiaoperations, Tony will lean on Kathleen Tan, 52, his decade-old associate at AirAsia, to build the India travel market, just as she did for the airline in China.

Tan, who is known as his 'right hand' in aviation circles and was the airline's former commercial head, has been appointed CEO of 
AirAsia Expedia (AAE), a JV between AirAsia and travel portal Expedia. It was Tan's original marketing gimmick to offer a million discounted flight seats - a pioneering move which she introduced first in 2005 for AirAsia. This strategy was adopted, this year, by SpiceJetBSE 3.25 % and Jet Airways.

Though, Tan is no more on AirAsia's payroll but she is not too far away either from her previous employer. Tony reads her shift to Expedia as a "gain for AirAsia".

"The potential of AirAsia Expedia is enormous and with Kathleen driving the business, I'm confident that AirAsia Expedia will become a leader in the online travel agent industry and generate substantial revenue for us, as a JV partner. It's not a loss, but a significant gain for AirAsia as our focus for the next five years is ancillary and adjacent businesses," 
Tony Fernandes told ET, in a response over email.

Having worked with AirAsia for nine years in different capacities, Tan makes a formidable team with Tony, whom she knows will bring "shocking fares" on the plate for Indian consumers, opening offbeat routes. Meanwhile, her job is cut out to market routes and packages available on the AirAsia network to Indian fliers.

"Under this JV (AirAsia-Expedia), we have two brands. AirAsia will stimulate the market. I know Tony and this brand very well. They are going to shock the market and give shocking fares. The industry here will have no choice. Competition is good for the consumer. Consumer will be the ultimate winner and the rest will have to follow suit because they are preparing for the arrival," Tan told ET. She is clear that the way to go is to leverage AirAsia's extensive network and get domestic Indian traffic to go all the way to South East Asia, which will also help Expedia get more customers. "Tony and Tata are not here to do four routes with four planes," Tan, who worked with Tony at 
Warner Music before he launched AirAsia, added.

When Tan joined AirAsia in 2004, it stood as two airlines with less than 20 planes. The following year in 2005 she came up with the idea of offering two million discounted seats - now a routine scheme by AirAsia. This year SpiceJet and 
Jet AirwaysBSE 1.56 % also floated similar offers for the first time and Tan feels flattered.

"We created a new traffic jam on our website then. It pulled the whole system down, which is good because what this says is that a lot of people want to fly but no one offers fares low enough. What I have done in my years of AirAsia is to create new demand, push boundaries no one knew. Whatever I have done, India is copying. So, I am very flattered," Tan said.