BANGKOK, 12 February 2020): A former CEO of Nok Air spills the beans on the ups and downs of heading a low-cost airline in Thailand.
Now the founder of the online travel agency, Really Really Cool, Patee Sarasin launched his English language autobiography this week that delves into the challenges he faced at the Thai low-cost carrier.
“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,” he notes. “People will judge you, not so much on the crisis itself, but on your response to it.”
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, that he co-founded in 2004 and was CEO until he stepped down in September 2017.
He now runs an online travel business that works with hotel groups such as Dusit Thani Hotels & Resorts as well as airlines such as Thai AirAsia, Thai AirAsia X, Nok Air and NokScoot.
Really Really Cool promotes travel between Thailand and other Asian countries Japan and South Korea right now, but before the virus crisis included trips to China.
“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 learnt. 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 USD70 a barrel, but the higher fuel prices in 2008 exasperated the problem. It reached the point that in late 2008 when oil prices topped USD140 a barrel, we were on the brink of collapse.
The airline was USD100,000 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.
Patee discusses other significant events in his book.
The political protests in Thailand in 2006 that caused the shut-down of Bangkok’s two international airports.
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,
An 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
A Nok Air pilots’ strike that unfolded in 2016.
Patee also discloses for the first time details of 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.”
Smiling Through Turbulence is available for sale online through popular sites such as Apple Books, Google Play and Amazon.com (Kindle and Amazon print-on-demand)
Patee is the founder and CEO of online travel agency Really Really Cool (www.reallyreally-cool.com) which works with leading airlines, hotels, resorts and tour operators to facilitate travel in the Asia Pacific.
Patee has worked in commercial television for NBC News in the US and in advertising in Thailand at Lintas Advertising, SPA Advertising and WPP’s Bates Advertising where he was CEO.
Bates won the Nok Air advertising account in early 2004. The airline then promptly installed Patee as CEO. He became CEO of Nok Air when he was 41, making him one of the world’s youngest airline CEOs at that time.