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[Newsmaker] AirAsia boss faces first major crisis

KUALA LUMPUR ― Malaysian mogul Tony Fernandes, who transformed a floundering carrier into Asia’s biggest budget airline, faces his first major crisis after an AirAsia plane went missing Sunday with 162 people on board.

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

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

Fernandes maintained an image of calm Sunday even as his company plunged into its first major crisis after an AirAsia passenger jet went missing in bad weather en route from Indonesia to Singapore.
AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes speaks to the media during a press conference at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, Sunday. (AP-Yonhap)
AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes speaks to the media during a press conference at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, Sunday. (AP-Yonhap)

“Obviously this is a massive shock to us and we are devastated ... (But) our concern right now is for the relatives and the next of kin. That’s our number one priority,” he said after arriving in Surabaya, where most of the passengers are from.

This incident caps a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation which saw beleaguered rival Malaysia Airlines suffer two air tragedies in rapid succession.

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

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

He took over loss-making AirAsia shortly after the Sept. 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 40 million ringgit ($13.4 million) in debt for the token sum of one ringgit, 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.

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 told AFP.

The airline, which has never before suffered a fatal accident, has more than 120 A320s and is one of the biggest customers for the European aircraft maker Airbus. It 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’s apparent disaster, AirAsia swiftly replaced its distinctive bright red logo on its social media pages with a gray background.

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. (AFP)
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