Before he was President and CEO of AirAsia’s Philippine branch, Dexter Comendador was a fighter pilot in the Philippine Air Force.

This, surprisingly, came in handy when Philippines AirAsia merged with Zest Airways in 2015.

Dexter Comendador, President and CEO of Philippines AirAsia
Dexter Comendador, President and CEO of Philippines AirAsia

From a military pilot to a CEO

“Starting a company from scratch is easier than trying to meld two very different cultures,” he says.

“But I got used to doing that in the military because the unit I got assigned to was a combat unit.”

“It was like that TV show, Baa Baa Black Sheep, which was about this newly created unit that the US Air Force assigned to Diego Garcia to block the Japanese advance.”

“In this show, and in the military, when you create a new unit, you ask for people from different existing units and, normally, the commander of those units will give you the worst.”

“They’ll try to clean up their own backyard and throw the crazy ones out.”

“That’s the kind of place I was last assigned to in the Air Force, so I knew how to handle the crazy guys with guns.”

“I just applied the same principles in trying to deal with the merger.”

It’s common for military pilots to transition to civilian aviation later in their career, but it’s not as common for them to wind up as CEO.

Dexter has, however, served Philippines AirAsia admirably since stepping into the position in 2016.

Last year was one of its best, and the company plans to expand its fleet by 50 over the next few years, to nearly 70 planes.

After all, it’s parent company has been named World’s Best Low-Cost Carrier by Skytrax, for the past nine years.

ASEAN livery

Nurturing the staff

The reason for Philippines AirAsia’s success is at least partially down to Dexter’s nurturing of the staff.

“Being a pilot gives me a chance, whenever I need to fly or feel like flying, to visit the different stations and see what their problems are. I can also check the skills of my pilots.”

“If anybody has a problem, they just come to me,” says Dexter.

“If there’s a question, I sit down with them and we talk about it. If there’s a decision to be made with other departments, I call the head executives. And we solve the problem immediately.”

“If anybody has a problem, they just come to me.”

Of course, a company doesn’t need to address many staff problems, if it simply solves them before they can truly manifest.

It’s for this reason that Philippines AirAsia puts a lot of care into training their staff and maintaining a skilled workforce.

“When we started AirAsia in the Philippines, back in Clark, we were training pilots who came from the other airlines here,” says Dexter.

“We pledged to start up an airline of Asian people who love to work in this area. To this day, we’re very proud to say we’ve been successful in this.”

“I’m a military guy, so I have to train them myself. Particularly the pilots and the crew first, but even the maintenance guys.”

“We first train them individually to perfect their individual skills. After that, we can train them as a team.”

“Along the way, it’s important to communicate our goals, ensuring they are very clear and simple. It doesn’t matter if you’re a driver, garbage collector, pilot or baggage handler.”

“Every employee is guaranteed to understand where we’re going and what we need to do.”

“And then, since they’re trained well individually and as a team, we can coordinate the different departments moving towards the same goal.”

Dexter Comendador with staff

Espousing a just culture

At the same time, Dexter understands the need for a well-structured, smooth-running internal culture.

Having spent around 10 years in the Air Force, the former fighter pilot brings a no-nonsense approach to managing staff.

It’s not just strict management though; Dexter maintains a firm grasp on egalitarianism, and a clear sense of what is right and wrong.

“Along with student-centred learning, we’re trying to espouse a just culture,” he says.

“Not only in terms of safety but also in terms of quality and discipline.”

“Then our staff start to realise that, ‘Okay, we know that if we do good, we’ll get promoted; if we do something wrong, we’ll get disciplined’.”

There is no favouritism

“In the Philippines, there are many cliques, like the pilots in the Air Force versus those in general aviation. But in this company, that separation does not exist.”

“I try to make it fair for everyone and we don’t focus on seniority because sometimes seniority creates bullies… There is no favouritism.”

“We try not to promote people just because they’re senior. In fact, there were two co-pilots who became chief pilots.”

“There is no favouritism. We try not to promote people just because they’re senior.”

“There are three things I tell new employees, especially the pilots. First, I hate bullies, so seniority does not exist here. Old, prideful pilots are let go.”

“We respect each other. Second, no drugs and alcohol. Third, no fraud. If I encounter a case of fraud, there’s no appeal.”

“But they know that if they are charged with something, they are given a fair trial by the board. So everything is just; just for the individual, and for the company.”

Philippines AirAsia also maintains an environment of fun and camaraderie, ensuring that its employees maintain a high level of morale and company loyalty.

Dexter Comendador with staff

Only company with a culture department

Dexter describes AirAsia as the “only company with a culture department”.

The department organises a number of events for the company, like a dragon dance during Christmas, along with New Year’s parties, birthday parties and physical activities.

During Valentine’s Day, Dexter says, “the culture department tells me, ‘Give all the ladies flowers!’ So I have to go around and give out many roses.”

AirAsia has a few core values; as well as being conscious of safety, the company endeavours to be caring, passionate, full of integrity, hardworking and fun.

It can be a lot of work to get a large organisation to exemplify such traits on a daily basis, but Dexter’s solution to maintaining the company values is to “live it as the CEO”.

Practise what you preach

“You have to practise what you preach,” he says. “It should start with me, and then my head executives.”

“Every time we have a core meeting, I remind them: ‘We devised our core values for this, and this is now the set of values we should espouse’.”

Dexter Comendador, President and CEO of Philippines AirAsia

“But for a long time, it has been about keeping your employees happy, because a happy employee means a happy client.”

Ultimately, this approach comes from Dexter’s days in the Air Force. He compares the management of the armed forces with that of employees; though there may be sacrifices, keeping his soldiers or workers safe is of primary importance.

“In the military, we manage resources and lives,” says Dexter. “But here in the business, we’re just managing money.”

“The planes are not important as long as I am able to keep people safe and we obtain the objective.”

“Here in business, it’s very important that I keep my team intact, happy and motivated, so whatever task I tell them to do, they will be able to do. It takes some form of expense, but the objective is obtained.”