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Commerce degree leads to high-flying career

Alumni News

For a man who admits he’s most comfortable working behind the scenes, Benyamin Ismail has been living a life in the spotlight since September 2015 as CEO of low-cost airline carrier, AirAsia X Berhad.

Benyamin Ismail stands in front of an AirAsiaX airplane on the runway.

The Curtin economics and finance alumnus was appointed to the executive role after a controversial period for the company. It was announced in mid-2014 that the company would not break even, and later that year the Australian public heavily criticised AirAsia X when it cancelled flights from Melbourne to Bali and delayed the process of passenger refunds. By 2015, research by Roy Morgan found AirAsia had the lowest customer satisfaction rating of any international airline flying from Australia.

But Ismail is not one for admitting defeat. He has been instrumental in turning the company around by taking a transparent and honest approach to business, and by focusing on strengthening the AirAsia brand.

“I came in at a time where the company was going through a bit of turbulence,” says Ismail. “We just had to do a turnaround plan for it, and it’s been successful so far.

“A lot of it is about addressing the issues. You need to be clear about what you want and your direction. If that means we need to go out and address them with third parties, we do it.”

Under Ismail’s leadership, the airline’s customer satisfaction rating has increased to 68 per cent as of February 2017, and it has held its title as offering the World’s Best Low-cost Premium Cabin for a fourth consecutive year.

“In the last three weeks we announced our full-year results and we made money. This is the first time the company has made money and I think that’s a feat,” says Ismail on the airline’s latest accomplishments.

Ismail brings seven years experience in investment banking to the CEO role. He joined the company in 2010 as Head of Investor Relations (IR), and was awarded Best IR Officer four years in a row. Most recently, Ismail was presented with a Professional Achievement Award at Curtin’s Alumni Achievement Awards in November 2016, which recognised his crucial role in the success and growth of AirAsia.

Ismail says his commerce degree majoring in economics and finance prepared him for a career in investment relations, but he never imagined that he would one day be flying-high as a CEO of an international airline.

“I’m always a very reserved person, but this airline is very visible in the world and it’s tough. I’d never heard of Instagram or Twitter before this role, never heard of Snapchat, and all of these things I’ve been asked to start doing – to create a profile and a presence. It’s not easy, but you gotta do it.”

Though his enthusiasm for social media may be lacking, Ismail was excited about the company’s latest announcement to become the first low-cost Asian carrier to fly to the US.

“It’s going to be massive, I think the sales reflect the excitement; we’re sold out for the first five months, and we’ll use this as a platform to see whether we can fly to other major US cities, but we’re just taking it step-by-step.”

This story was originally published in issue 29 of the winter edition of CITE magazine 2017.

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