Innovation in Asia: With AirAsia, the super app concept expands to new industries

AirAsia, one of the world’s largest budget airlines, is on a mission to build a regional super app. While it follows in the footsteps of titans like WeChat in China and Gojek in Southeast Asia, if AirAsia succeeds, it will blaze a path for travel and other industries in Western markets not endemic to the mobile space. Companies that want to expand their mobile business can learn lessons from AirAsia on embedding and introducing new, complementary services in their apps.

At a Glance

Countries mentioned: China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand

Key companies: AirAsia, Gojek, Grab, WeChat

Essential stats: This year, retail sales will reach $970.83 billion across the six major economies we track in Southeast Asia. But only 4.6% of those sales—or $45.07 billion—will transact via ecommerce.

The opportunity: Companies across digital and traditional industries can adopt a “super app” mindset to expand into and drive revenues from new verticals.

From airline to super app

When the pandemic wreaked havoc on the airline industry, AirAsia doubled down on its digital strategy. Over the past year, the leading low-cost carrier in Asia has been building a regional super app—a digital ecosystem of products and services housed under a single application and user experience.

In July 2021, in one of the most noteworthy indications of its ambitions to date, AirAsia announced plans to pay $50 million for the Thailand operations of Gojek, an Indonesian tech giant that offers its own super app. Gojek will take a 4.8% stake in AirAsia’s super app business, which the deal reportedly values at about $1 billion.

The purchase is in line with the Malaysia-based company’s October 2020 announcement of its transformation from a “digital airline” to a “comprehensive lifestyle platform.”

Now, AirAsia offers some combination of ecommerce, food delivery, and ride-hailing services in several Southeast Asian markets—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand—via its super app, which saw revenues jump 39% year over year (YoY) in Q2 2021.

With these moves, the company has embarked on a remarkable—and risky—new business strategy. Here’s why major players, both in and out of the travel industry, are watching: