A childhood dream, a little mentoring from Richard Branson and a 20p purchase took Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes to the helm of the pan-Asian budget airline at the heart of aviation’s latest mystery.
Born in Kuala Lumpur in 1964, Fernandes went to boarding school in Epsom, Surrey, before going on to study at the London School of Economics. He followed Branson’s own trajectory of beginning in the music industry, working for Virgin after graduation. In 2001, aged 37, he made his move into airlines by snapping up AirAsia, then a troubled, state-owned airline that had run up large debts, for one ringgit, or around 20p. According to Forbes magazine, he now has an estimated personal wealth of around £400m. He was made a CBE in 2011.
The branding of Fernandes’s airline felt like Branson’s Virgin, down to the colour scheme and logo typeface, but the bigger inspiration was the boom in low-cost flying that was transforming Europe’s flightmaps. Soon the fleet was expanding rapidly, and within a decade AirAsia was flying 30 million passengers annually.
While the group’s HQ is in Malaysia, the AirAsia brand has become an umbrella for foreign airlines in which Fernandes has a stake. He bought 49% of the then AWAIR, an Indonesian low-cost carrier, in 2004, rebranding it as Indonesia AirAsia the following year. Similar joint ventures have brought AirAsia into the Philippines, Thailand, Japan and most recently into India. With large numbers of new planes on order, Fernandes has spoken of AirAsia X linking Europe and Asia via low-cost longhaul in the years ahead, starting with a London route.
For all his entrepreneurial nous, Fernandes has made questionable ventures in other arenas – in Britain, most famously buying up football club QPR and seeing it overreach itself in terms of salaries for star players who failed to deliver. A four-year adventure in Formula One came to an unhappy conclusion early in 2014.
A well-recognised face in Asia, where he has taken the Alan Sugar role in the continent’s version of The Apprentice, he is not averse to immersing himself in publicity stunts of all sorts à la Branson – in fact, a bet between the two tycoons recently led to the Virgin boss dressed up as a stewardess serving passengers on AirAsia flights.
Fernandes is prolific on social media and was quick to share condolences and keep the public informed as he made his way to Surabaya in Indonesia to meet relatives of the passengers aboard flight QZ8501.
“This is my worse nightmare,” he wrote on Twitter. “But there is no stopping. To all my staff Airasia all stars be strong, continue to be the best. Pray hard. Continue to do your best for all our guests. See u all soon.”
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