AirAsia unveils new Airbus A330neo planes, plans for expansion in Australian market

AirAsia is eyeing an Australian expansion on the wings of a new fleet of planes.

The airline has unveiled the first of its new long-haul fleet at the world's biggest air show in Paris.

As thundering fighter jets twisted and turned through the French summer sky above, industry insiders and international media gathered at ground level for their first glimpse inside the A330neo passenger plane.

The cut-price carrier is promising its customers more personal space, quieter cabins and extra bag storage aboard the new wide-bodied aircraft.

Mood lighting, individual power points and ergonomic chairs are also being thrown in the mix.

But the real selling point is the jet's fuel efficiency, allowing it to travel far further for less.

AirAsia is now targeting key destinations - including Australia, South Korea and Japan - as it looks to grow its global footprint with cheap flights.

Cheap doesn't need to mean nasty, argues AirAsia X chief executive Nadda Buranasiri.

The carrier has just picked up its 11th consecutive gong as the world's best low cost airline at this year's World Airline Awards.


Driving through Paris after pocketing the consumer award at an international air show, Mr Buranasiri was mindful of changing Australian perceptions of low-cost providers.

"The cheap has to still be there," he said.

"But when you say cheap, it comes with the expectation that it's not going to be that great.

"We want to call ourselves value for money, and that's the important thing that we are trying to do, especially in Australia."

Australians are beginning to warm to AirAsia's base rates, with 60 flights in and out of the country each week.

But its additional costs - for luggage, preferred seating, meals and entertainment - are a pet peeve among many holiday-makers.

Mr Buranasiri is leaving the door open to reshaping this add-on model in time.

"When you start having a mindset that what we are already doing is working then it stops your ability to improve," he said.

"If one day the business model needs to be revised or re-looked at, then we will not say to ourselves that it is not possible."

Industry insiders also point to nagging problems with AirAsia's levels of service when connections go awry and cancellations occur.

In response, the airline has rebadged its customer care department to be "customer happiness".

It is also investing heavily in artificial intelligence in an attempt to gain more control over the problems.

A virtual agent called Ava will soon be tasked with handling general inquiries, checking flights and processing refunds.

"We still have the chat room and call centre but she is learning every day," Mr Buranasiri said.

"Maybe we are getting there sooner than we think, in terms of making it a better experience."

AirAsia is dipping its toe deeper into the Australian market with direct flights between Brisbane and Bangkok starting next week.

The route will soon be serviced by a new fleet of quiet, fuel-efficient long- haul planes.

AirAsia wants to expand its network into two or three more Australian cities with the long-range jets, but is treading carefully.

The carrier is also contemplating targeting regional airports with smaller planes in four years' time.

Mr Buranasiri said the airline was still learning how to contend with pesky Queensland moths playing havoc with plane engines, and figuring out how to target its advertising to local consumers.

"We love expansion but we don't want to expand too fast," he said.

"In every market, we need a learning curve. We're in no rush to expand. We need to understand the market first."

The first of its Airbus A330neo jets will begin flying from Thailand next month, with direct links between Bangkok and Brisbane.

Another will come onboard in August.

AirAsia X chief executive Nadda Buranasiri said the airline would use the Queensland experiment to test the strength of the Australian market.

"I think it would a good start for us to understand the market, to understand the passengers, and then we will grow from there," he said in Paris on Monday.

"We need to be sure that when we go in, the market will grow, so right now I can't tell you which the next destination will be."

​Mr Buranasiri expects the new planes to operate between Thailand and two or three more Australian cities.

Cheaper fuel costs mean direct flights into Europe and the US are also back on the cards, after AirAsia scrapped its London and Paris services in 2012.

The airline gives its new routes just one year to prove their worth.

"If within a year it continues to strengthen we will continue," its chairwoman Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz said.

"But our strategy has always been if within a year we cannot meet all the expectations, because it's not an efficient route for us, we will discontinue.

"We're a very practical people, we cannot go on just to service as a charity, you know what I mean?"

AirAsia currently operates 36 A330s.

It has ordered 66 of the next generation aircraft, with another two on lease, to be folded into its existing fleet over the next few years.

The planes have been configured with 12 premium flatbeds and 377 standard seats, and have a range of 12,130km.

The reporter travelled to International Paris Air Show courtesy of AirAsia.