Another shot for a brand-new day

Even if AirAsia Philippines retrenched 12 percent of its manpower and its top executives and pilots took voluntary pay cuts, the best low-cost airline in Asia, says the lady boss, is ready to paint the skies red again.

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AirAsia Philippines vice chair Sheila Romero.

Experience is truly a great teacher. Until you get to experience things differently, you will never really learn the lessons it brings.

For me, life in lockdown allowed me to see things in a different light. It gave me a fresh perspective on how to go about achieving my goals. I had more time for family, for personal pursuits, and to seek spiritual nourishment.

Up close, we see God’s grace at the center of all this.

We are all aware that air travel was hit the hardest by COVID-19. At AirAsia Philippines, our priority was to come up with ways to ensure that the business stays afloat and to help our AllStars survive the crisis.

Plans for 2020 were really upbeat as 2019 was a banner year for the airline. We received major industry awards, including Best Low-Cost Airline in Asia by Skytrax (for 11 years!). On top of the airline’s profitability and revenues, our market share was up by 20 percent from 2018. Plans were geared towards opening five new destinations and adding seven more planes on our fleet of 24 this year. We were ready to paint the skies red for 2020.


Sheila Romero is the vice chairman of AirAsia Philippines. She’s the wife of Deputy Speaker Mikee Romero and devoted mother to five beautiful children.

Then, the unforeseen happened.

The Taal Volcano eruption in January was my first rodeo in crisis management since I became a vice-chair. Although my role was mostly as a shareholder — as majority owner of the local counterpart (AirAsia Bernard owns 40 percent) —the responsibility was more than what I expected. 

Though AirAsia network’s plan to go fully digital was underway, I initiated opening our old Salem office, near the old domestic airport to address all the mounting concerns of passengers who were stranded when flights were abruptly cancelled for three days. Confusion and queries were escalating and the “bot” was not enough to manage hundreds of flights. Our management team was fast and proactive in making sure that operations were under control. 

Our AllStars had to be flexible in managing satellite customer service stations to ensure that passengers were appeased. We provided accommodations and rebooked flights, and although this cost the company millions, it was a sacrifice we were willing to make as part of our commitment to go that extra mile for our passengers. 

Just when we were over that calamity, COVID-19 forced the government to close all domestic flights effective March 17 and eventually shut down all international flights.

To say that the pandemic was a bad blow to the industry is a major understatement. Flying, unless absolutely necessary, was the furthest thing from people’s minds. In the international arena, we heard of established airlines going bankrupt, being on the brink of folding up, and under negotiations for mergers just to survive. 

Early on, some airlines decided to let go of thousands of people. I must say that we, at AirAsia Philippines, held on to our people the longest in the domestic front. There were voluntary pay cuts from our top executives, managers and pilots. We also had to retrench, sadly, 12 percent of our manpower, but our current employees receiving P45,000 and below still receive their monthly salary to this date. This includes those who work from home, cabin crew with basic pay and ground staff.

We faced our challenges head-on as rules by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and local government units frequently changed especially since Manila’s quarantine status changed to GCQ. Our management was in constant coordination from the start of the pandemic with our government aviation authorities, both local and global, as well as with the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure we followed all safety protocols.

Zoom meetings became frequent and longer as we strove to manage our cash flow. Load factors were low even and we made sure that ticket prices didn’t increase.

We also gave 1,000 free tickets to our frontliners based in Metro Manila for them to go home and be with their families. We helped the government in both international and domestic repatriation flights of OFWs.

I was proud of the customized PPE that I collaborated on with designer Puey Quiñones for our crew to wear in our repatriation flights. It was an all-red PPE that looked like F1 overalls. I made sure that our frontliners, our cabin crew, felt comfortable, safe and proud to be wearing their uniform, which symbolized our commitment to transport stranded Filipinos and foreigners.

Extra affirmation for me was the international coverage that the PPEs got from the press all over Asia, Australia, Canada and the UK’s Dailymail.

We are very specific about the stringent safety protocols implemented throughout the passengers’ journey from pre-flight to post-flight. Social distancing is observed in pre-boarding and as much as possible on the flight and passengers cannot board without wearing a facemask.

The IATA has indicated that the risk of transmission on board an aircraft is extremely low. The air inside the cabin passes through powerful high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which purify the air every two to three minutes by screening almost an entire spectrum of particles. Cabin air circulation is at par with that of operating rooms in hospitals.

What a vital lesson this one was for me — being able to meld corporate concerns with all things I need to attend to as a wife and a mother. I couldn’t believe that even during the lockdown, my calendar was still full. 

With regards to I Want To Share Foundation, which I founded, we started an initiative to address and donate various needs from PPEs, alcohol, food, and even an alkaline machine for the children with cancer in the Hema-Pediatric-Onco ward.

One day, a friend who had an acrylic business gave me the idea of donating aerosol boxes that can protect health workers in the intubation process of patients with COVID-19. I called friends to join me in this project and found myself waking up each day with a different purpose as the ECQ passed. We were able to send these boxes to over 50 hospitals around the country.

Lifting up one’s life to the Lord brings many unexpected revelations. His ways of taking care of each of us can be very diverse, as His ways are immense. All He asks of us is to submit to His holy will. To quote Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”  

Just being able to wake up each day these past several months has given me a deeper perspective of what it means to be grateful to God for the life He has given us. I still bake with my kids. We still bond more over coffee, wine and have our regular movie nights. But it also gave me more time to grow spiritually through Zoom Bible studies. Or simply have more time for friends and family — even though virtually. Life is indeed short and I would like to continue to live the lessons that this pandemic taught me even after all this is over.

AirAsia will continue to focus on its domestic drive in the short term for essential flights. We will continue to provide jobs to our AllStars and commit to supporting the economy by providing continuous air transport for passengers and cargo.

We did a marketing campaign in anticipation of when the skies open again — a video showing the best spots of our Philippine destinations, aptly titled “Brand-New Day.”

“The world may have stopped, but we have to keep moving. We have to keep dreaming. Until we get another shot at a brand-new day.”  Let’s live with hope, courage and love as we live our new normal.