In his book Smiling Through Turbulence, Patee shares the highs and lows he experienced managing Nok Air, one of Asia’s leading low-cost carriers.
Patee Sarasin, CEO and founder of online travel agency Really Really Cool and the former CEO of Nok Air, has launched a tell-all autobiography where he discusses the challenges and crises he experienced running Thai low-cost carrier Nok Air.
“The book is controversial and will ruffle feathers, but it is a story that needs to be told,” says Patee.
“It is ironic that we are launching the book now, when the aviation industry is experiencing a major global crisis caused by the coronavirus, because my book Smiling Through Turbulence is all about crises that airlines go through. As an airline CEO you have to put on a brave face and take the brunt of any crisis affecting the airline, so the people who work for you can focus on their jobs which is caring for and helping the airline’s passengers.”
“People will judge you, not so much on the crisis itself, but on your response to it.”
“In a crisis, you need think about what you, as a CEO and as an airline, can do to help others. It is not the crisis itself that is important, but how you deal with it. Airlines going through a crisis need to be responsive, flexible and to help people. But when it comes to helping people, you need to understand your constraints and what you can do effectively. Rather than try to do everything, you need to focus on what you can deliver on,” he adds.
Patee says airlines are usually at the forefront of any global crisis and the current situation is no exception. “But airlines are very adept at dealing with crises and are resilient. I am confident that the global airline industry will recover strongly from the current crisis.”
In his book Smiling Through Turbulence, Patee shares the highs and lows he experienced managing Nok Air, one of Asia’s leading low-cost carriers. Patee co-founded Nok in 2004 and was CEO until he stepped down in September 2017. He now runs a successful online travel business called Really Really Cool. It works with hotel groups such as Dusit Thani Hotels & Resorts as well as with airlines such as: Thai AirAsia, Thai AirAsia X, Nok Air and NokScoot.
Really Really Cool promotes travel between Thailand and other Asian countries, such as: China, Japan and South Korea.
“My online travel agency business has been affected by the current crisis, but my business and the industry will recover. When you work in the aviation and travel industry you need to deal with a lot of crises,” he says.
In his book, Smiling Through Turbulence, Patee recounts all the major crises he went through managing Nok Air and the lessons learned. The book opens with the December 2004 tsunami that devastated parts Asia including some areas of southern Thailand.
“Nok Air had launched only a few months prior to that catastrophe. The tsunami had a major impact on the airline’s operations. It nearly wiped our business out,” he says.
Patee also reveals in the book that Nok Air was on the brink of financial collapse in late 2008 due to sky high fuel prices that caused the airline’s financials to spiral out of control. “We had already been losing money in 2007, when crude oil prices were around US$70 a barrel, but the higher fuel prices in 2008 exasperated the problem. It reached the point that in late 2008, when oil prices topped US$140 a barrel, we were on the brink of collapse. The airline was losing three million baht (US$100,000) a day, a lot of money for a small privately-owned carrier, and we only had enough cash left to last a few more weeks. It was the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the ensuing global financial crisis that saved us, because it suddenly caused oil prices to plummet,” he says.
Other major crises that Patee discusses in the book includes:
- the political protests in Thailand in 2006 that caused the shut-down of Bangkok’s two international airports,
- the 2011 floods that engulfed many parts of Bangkok and forced Nok Air to relocate its base to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport from Don Mueang International Airport,
- the IT meltdown Nok Air had in 2015 when its reservation system crashed, causing lengthy delays at check-in and havoc at the airport’s departure hall
- and the 2016 Nok Air pilots’ strike.
Patee also discloses for the first time, Nok Air’s failed tie-up in Thailand with Indonesian low-cost carrier Lion Air. “One of the biggest mistakes we made was to meet with Rusdi Kirana, president director of Lion Air, Indonesia’s largest airline. I now look back on that episode in my life and wonder to myself ‘why did we meet Rusdi?’”
“We had known for quite some time that Lion Air wanted to establish an airline in Thailand and we thought if Lion Air was going to come in a big way, then we better start talking to them about the possibility of partnering. But talking to Lion proved to be a big mistake. Rather than partner with Nok Air, Lion established Thai Lion Air which came into the Thai domestic market and sparked a price war. Lion entered the Thai market not to take on Nok Air, but to compete against AirAsia. Rusdi and AirAsia’s Tony Fernandes are rivals and sadly for Nok Air, we become collateral damage in a battle between AirAsia Group and Lion Air Group for market dominance in Southeast Asia.”