AirAsia flight QZ8501: Leadership of Tony Fernandes needed to deal with loss

Tony Fernandes, chief executive officer AirAsia Bhd., speaks at the 2011 Forbes Global CEO Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Sept. 14, 2011. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Tony Fernandes, chief executive officer AirAsia Bhd., speaks at the 2011 Forbes Global CEO Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Sept. 14, 2011. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Tony Fernandes was 37 years old when he paid RM$1 (S$0.38) to acquire the debt-laden AirAsia back in 2001.

The rest, as they say, is aviation history.

Within no time at all, he'd turned around the budget carrier. Then he transformed it into Asia's largest, expanding from its Malaysian headquarters into an award-winning low-cost giant that ferries over 40 million passengers a year.

By bringing budget flights to Malaysia and changing the face of regional aviation, Tan Sri Fernandes has become a semi-cult figure at home. Many Malaysians enjoyed their first flight, thanks to the lower prices introduced by his carrier, which operates with the tagline "Now everyone can fly".

The onward and upward AirAsia success story - it cleared its RM40 million debt after a year - had proceeded without a hitch until Sunday (Dec 28, 2014) when an Airbus 320 operated by its 49-per-cent-owned subsidiary Indonesia AirAsia went missing with 162 onboard.

Not surprisingly, Mr Fernandes' first reaction was to fly down immediately to Surabaya, where the flight originated, to be close to the families of passengers on board the plane.

Flamboyant and unflappable, Mr Fernandes is known for a keen interest in sports, a trait that has raised his profile on both front and back pages of newspapers.

In 2013, he became the "Donald Trump" of reality TV series: The Apprentice Asia - based on the American original - where aspiring young entrepreneurs compete for the chance to work with Mr Fernandes, who also hosted the show.

Even when AirAsia committed a PR gaffe by running an inflight magazine article that appeared to mock Malaysia Airlines less than a month after its rival tragically lost a Boeing 777, the unperturbed chief executive was swift in apologising and recalling the offending publication.

The publicly-listed AirAsia now flies to 88 destinations in 22 countries and Mr Fernandes was estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth over RM2 billion, making him Malaysia's 28th richest person.

His holdings include two-thirds of English Premier League football club Queens Park Rangers, where he is chairman. He also founded the Caterham Formula One team which began racing in 2010 as Lotus Racing.

A bet with Virgin Group boss Richard Branson (for whose music arm he once served as financial controller) over whose racing team would do better saw the British tycoon serving as a stewardess - complete with the signature red uniform and lipstick - on an AirAsia flight last year.

Although Mr Fernandes eventually sold the Caterham team this year, he remains chairman of the Caterham Group which is best known for making specialist lightweight sportscars.

One of his biggest achievements, however, has been to lead the charge for open-skies in South-east Asia. He lobbied for the idea with the leaders of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. As a result, those nations granted landing rights to AirAsia and other discount carriers that have mushroomed in the region.

Now his leadership is needed at AirAsia in dealing with the loss of flight QZ8501, an incident that has sparked grief from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Before flying in to Surabaya to meet his Indonesian management on Sunday, he tweeted that "my only thoughts are with the passengers and my crew... we must stay strong."

shannont@sph.com.sg