AirAsia CEO’s worst nightmare unfolds as plane carrying 162 people vanishes

'I as your group CEO will be there through these hard times. We will go through this terrible ordeal together,' pledged Tony Fernandes, after one of AirAsia's planes disappeared on its way from Indonesia to Singapore.
AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes, a high-visibility entrepreneur, is faced with his first company crisis. Beawiharta / Reuters

TRANSPORT BUSINESS)
AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes, a high-visibility entrepreneur, is faced with his first company crisis. Beawiharta / Reuters TRANSPORT BUSINESS)

KUALA LUMPUR // AirAsia’s chief Tony Fernandes, who transformed a floundering carrier into Asia’s biggest budget airline, faces his first major crisis after one of his planes went missing on Sunday with 162 people on board.

The airline is credited with starting a revolution in the skies of South East Asia and has seen spectacular growth under Mr Fernandes’ low-cost, low-overheads model despite intense competition.

The Malaysian mogul is one of Asia’s most visible entrepreneurs, carving out an image that has seen him frequently compared to colourful Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson.

“This is my worst nightmare. But there is no stopping,” Mr Fernandes said on his Twitter feed, which has nearly one million followers.

“I as your group CEO will be there through these hard times. We will go through this terrible ordeal together and I will try to see as many of you,” he tweeted as he left for Surabaya, where most of the passengers are from.The AirAsia incident caps a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation which saw beleaguered rival Malaysia Airlines suffer two air tragedies in rapid succession.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared on a regular flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March with 239 passengers and crew, and in July, MH17 was shot down over troubled Ukraine killing all 298 on board.

Mr Fernandes, a former record industry executive who acquired the then-failing airline in 2001, is ranked 28th on the Forbes list of Malaysia’s richest with an estimated net worth of US$650 million (Dh2,387m).

The tycoon, a flamboyant spirit in Asia’s staid business world who favours blue jeans and caps over power suits, has made a habit of defying naysayers.

He took over loss-making AirAsia shortly after the September 11 attacks in the United States sent the global aviation industry into a tailspin, and was given little chance of succeeding.

He bought the airline, its two aircraft, and $13.4m in debt for the token sum of one Malaysian ringgit (Dh1.05), mortgaging his house to pour money into the carrier.

But with his motto “Now everyone can fly”, he turned it into a growing force in the aviation industry, with profits mounting and its route system expanding worldwide.

Mr Fernandes, who is of Indian-Portuguese descent and married with two children, struck a deal with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone in 2011 for a majority stake in Premiership football team Queens Park Rangers.

Endau Analytics aviation analyst Shukor Yusof said his entrepreneurial spirit would survive Sunday’s apparent tragedy.

“This incident will not dampen Fernandes’ business spirit. This is such an unfortunate incident. AirAsia remains a strong budget carrier. I think the people will rally behind AirAsia,” he said.

The airline, which now has more than 120 A320s and is one of the biggest customers for the European aircraft maker Airbus, is expecting nearly 360 new aircraft to be delivered by 2026.

AirAsia, which has some of the lowest unit costs in the world, has raked in business awards and accolades over the years, while expanding aggressively.

In 2013 it was ranked as Asia and the world’s best low-cost airline for the fifth time in a row.

After Sunday’sincident, AirAsia swiftly replaced its distinctive bright red logo on its social media pages with a grey background.

“Thank you for all your thoughts and prayers. We must stay strong,” Mr Fernandes tweeted.

“My only thought [sic] are with the passengers and my crew.”

* Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting from Reuters

Published: December 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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