SEPANG • It has been a good, good year for AirAsia Group chief executive Tony Fernandes. So much so that he needs only one word to describe 2017 - "amazing".
The budget airline's recent 16th anniversary was made even sweeter when it snagged the World's Leading Low-Cost Airline award for the fifth year in a row at the World Travel Awards grand final held in Vietnam. And there were the nine times Skytrax named it the World Best Low-Cost Airline.
When asked about his South Korean wife whom he married in October, the 53-year-old affable man broke into a hearty laugh about his life as a married man now. "Well, let me ask my staff. I'm driving them crazy because I'm much more focused now. It's been great. I enjoy it, I enjoy going back home, I enjoy doing things with someone else."
Did he go down on one knee to propose? "No, because I'm too old. And my knees are giving me problems. This one, particularly; my meniscus was torn at the time," said Tan Sri Fernandes, smacking his right knee.
What he did share was that he popped the question at the Parisian restaurant where they first met. "It was closed, it was very cold. And I did something I never thought I would do. Of course, I did it with a bit of style, (for) which I was laughed at by other people," he joked.
As for AirAsia's momentous year and how the airline had done things differently compared with its rivals, Mr Fernandes said it puts people first. "I think we try hard to make the experience as real as possible, in terms of our cabin crew, in terms of the food; our seats are made to be as comfortable as they can be with the limitations that we have," he said.
Facts about AirAsia
FOUNDED: On Dec 20, 1993, by a government-owned conglomerate, DRB-Hicom. In 2001, the airline, then heavily in debt, was bought by former Time-Warner executive Tony Fernandes' company, Tune Air, for the token sum of RM1, with debts totalling US$11 million. Mr Fernandes turned the company profitable a year later. THE BEGINNING: Started with two aircraft plying six routes in Malaysia in January 2002.
Number of routes served.
Number of destinations from 20 hubs in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and India.
Fleet size, including from subsidiaries.
Number of passengers the airline carried in the third quarter of this year.
As for next year, he said it is going to be all about customer service, with a lot of investment in the sales force. "I want to make our customers really happy. I think we can be much better than we are. I think we have to be asking ourselves what our failings are. I want to be able to respond to our customers quickly (so they can) get a refund, or (ask) a question."
Likening AirAsia to a "shop in the sky", he said he wants to make the airline the Alibaba and Amazon of travel. "Lots of things coming up over the next year to do that; 2018 in one word? Digital."
To make it easier for people to fly with AirAsia, he hopes to use data and technology to improve its reliability and on-time performance, learn more about its customers and provide a better, personalised flying experience. "Every airline is going to have delays; it's how you manage delays. So all those things are my goal in 2018," said Mr Fernandes, adding that his people - and the challenge of showing that Malaysia can be the best - keep him going.
Despite challenges, he still thinks the outlook for budget airlines next year is fantastic, with both the Philippines and Thailand building low-cost flight facilities, leading him to remain bullish about the future of aviation.
From a global perspective, he does not think the era of US President Donald Trump will change travel patterns, or that there will be a decline of passengers from this region flying to the United States. "Because America is America. Everyone wants to go to America, whether to see the Statue of Liberty, whether to see Disneyland. Donald Trump is not going to change that."
AirAsia Group chief executive Tony Fernandes on...
HOW HE PROPOSED
I did something I never thought I would do. Of course, I did it with a bit of style, (for) which I was laughed at by other people.
People who want to travel are going to travel and they're not worried about Donald Trump.
But he feels that more people are taking short trips and trying out regional travel because of AirAsia and other low-cost airlines.
"What's changing is that we're giving people an alternative to travel - by travelling short haul. People who want to travel are going to travel and they're not worried about Donald Trump," he said.
Mr Fernandes' other wishes for the year is to shed some weight, see his football team, Queens Park Rangers, get promoted, and for AirAsia to have a record year.
Having lost 9kg since he put fitness as a priority six months ago, the chocolate fan admits that food is his biggest weakness.
He also shared his passion for health and education. "I'd love to democratise that," he said, showing his belief in the power of dreams.
"I made flying affordable. I'd love to make education affordable."
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK