The two airlines, among Western Australians’ favourites, are almost back to full strength. Business News spoke to the chief executives about their growth plans.
Going into COVID, Cathay Pacific Airways was flying high from virtually every aspect despite the turmoil in Hong Kong.
The pandemic devastated the airline, with China’s strict quarantine requirements stifling efforts to get it back on its feet after the rest of the world opened from March 2022.
Cathay Pacific Airways chief executive Ronald Lam, a 25-year veteran, said the airline was finally back on its feet.
“As of end of June, our total fleet across the group is 225, and at that time, we still had 25 aircraft parked in Alice Springs,” Mr Lam said.
“Well, it’s now less than 10 per cent of our fleet.
“Our plan is to bring all of them back sometime by the first half of next year.”
The airline has ordered 32 A321neo and A320neos due to be delivered through to 2029. This brings total orders to 70.
The airline’s flagship into the future will be the 400-seat Boeing 777-9, with deliveries to start in 2025.
The 777-9 is a greatly enhanced version of the Boeing 777-300ER, which is the backbone of the world’s long-haul fleet.
Mr Lam said that while it’s early days, the airline was “seeing a lot of pent-up demand when it comes to business travel and leisure travel”.
In terms of behaviour, Mr Lam does not see any changes apart from the huge demand and does not sense any longer-term structural change in travel habits.
“I think the corporates travellers are still travelling as they did before COVID, as are the leisure travellers,” he said.
The airline is planning big things for the cabins of its aircraft.
“We couldn’t invest for three years because of COVID, and we were the hardest-hit airline in the world, according to many industry experts,” Mr Lam said.
“But coming out from COVID, we’ve been rebuilding well, and we are rebuilding our financials in a healthy way.
“So, we have the ability and commitment to catch up on our investment cycle, and this year and next we’ll be making a lot of investment commitments for the future.
“When it comes to cabin product, the first launch we’re going to have is sometime in quarter two next year.
“We are going to retrofit our 39-strong 777-300ER fleet with a new business-class cabin, and we have named the new product Aria Suite.”
The suites will feature sliding doors.
“And we’ll have a new premium-economy cabin as well,” Mr Lam said.
The airline will scrap first class in its 777-300ERs and have a three-class configuration.
Benyamin Ismail (left) says AirAsia X is ready to expand. Ronald Lam (right) says the airline is seeing a lot of demand.
From 2025, it will put its new first-class cabin on to the 777-9 and the aircraft will have a four-class configuration: first, business, premium economy and economy.
Following that introduction, Cathay Pacific will look at its regional fleet, in particular the A330, with a new product.
Referring to the Hong Kong protests in 2019-20, Mr Lam said that while the city has had a few tough years, it was now “really stable from a business environment angle and we are seeing tourism coming back”.
“There are still some wrong perceptions about Hong Kong that we need to correct but, as more and more people visit Hong Kong for themselves, they will find that [it] is back to normal and is a very sound place to visit for leisure and business purposes,” he said.
From Perth, Cathay Pacific will be operating six flights a week to Hong Kong from December.
From February, there will be a daily service operated by 294-seat Boeing 777-300ERs.
After a tough battle to survive during the pandemic, with no government support, AirAsia X has emerged newly restructured, revitalised and ready to expand.
The restructuring has made the airline group leaner and better able to meet any challenges, according to chief executive Benyamin Ismail.
However, the relaunch of AirAsia X has been slow by design as most of the airline’s aircraft were grounded and required maintenance before carrying passengers.
Mr Ismail, who is Perth-educated and a passionate aviation enthusiast, said the “whole world couldn’t get maintenance slots for the required overhaul after being grounded” and that slowed up the relaunch of passenger services.
The airline has 18 Airbus A330s in its system but four are still going through maintenance.
“Our strategy out of COVID was to get at least one foot in all the markets that we used to fly,” he said.
“So, in Australia we’re flying into Melbourne, Sydney and Gold Coast, as well as Perth.”
The airline has returned to Korea, Japan and India but China is not yet back to pre-COVID flight levels.
“We’re making sure that we have enough capacity when China does open up fully,” he said.
Mr Ismail said Australia was a major market for the airline.
“It is a core market for us,” he said.
“We haven’t gone to the frequency that we want yet. [With] Sydney, we’re on peak of 10 times.
“Perth is only about nine times. So, we’re not there yet. Ideally, we want Perth to be double daily as there is pent-up demand for travel out of Australia.
“Potentially, I think we do want to grow this market, and we may look at addressing some of the other markets that were untapped for us before in the past.
“So, maybe Adelaide.”
The airline would look again at the US and the UK when it received a fleet of more capable Airbus A330-900neos.
In the near term it is looking at central Asia.
“Places like Turkey, Kazakhstan or Uzbek or even Africa, and there are other markets as well,” he said.
“Africa is very under-served in terms of carriers out of this side of the world.
“We haven’t been shy on saying that we want to go to Istanbul, we want to go to Kazakhstan, we want to go to Africa.”
These destinations are on the airline’s 18-month radar.
Europe, however, will be the focus in 2026 when the first of 15 A330-900neos, with greater range and capacity, arrive.
Mr Ismail said Thai AirAsia X might start a Bangkok-Perth service, particularly as Thai International had not returned to Perth.
“I think Bangkok-Perth will be a good market,” he said.
Mr Ismail saw many growth possibilities.
“People are coming out of Japan; people are coming out of Korea. And of course, Australia is a great example,” he said.
“I was just in Sydney two weeks ago and I was talking to the media, and they were saying that it seems that now travel has become part of your disposable income, they don’t mind eating less every day just to travel more.
“And that’s something that’s happening now in Australia.
“We’ve seen that in our flights and the booking during peak season is crazy.”
Mr Ismail said one of the strengths of AirAsia X was its network.
“We’re working hard to entice people in Australia that there is life after Bali,” he said.
“We have Thailand, we have Vietnam.”