AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes and chairman step aside as Airbus bribery allegations probed

A committee comprising the non-executive members of AirAsia's board will review the allegations and take any necessary action. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - AirAsia Group chief executive officer Tony Fernandes and chairman Kamarudin Meranun will step aside for at least two months while the airline and the authorities investigate allegations Airbus paid a bribe of US$50 million (S$68.5 million) to win plane orders from the company.

A committee comprising the non-executive members of AirAsia's board will review the allegations and take any necessary action, Asia's biggest budget airline said on Monday (Feb 3).

Mr Fernandes, one of the aviation industry's best-known executives, and Mr Kamarudin will remain advisers, however, "in view of the current difficult economic circumstances facing the airline industry", the company added.

Senior company executive Tharumalingam Kanagalingam will be the acting CEO, with the changes effective immediately.

In a joint statement, Mr Fernandes and Mr Kamarudin denied any allegations of wrongdoing or misconduct as directors of AirAsia.

"We would not harm the very companies that we spent our entire lives building up to their present global status," they said.

Shares in AirAsia and unit AirAsia X fell on Monday after the allegations by Britain's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) came to light on Friday (Jan 31).

AirAsia stock fell as much as 11 per cent to RM1.27 (42 Singapore cents), its lowest since May 2016, while AirAsia X dropped 12 per cent to a record low of 11.5 Malaysian sen.

Malaysia's anti-graft agency is also investigating the allegations.

AirAsia has said it never made any purchase decisions that were premised on Airbus sponsorship, and that it would fully cooperate with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

Malaysia's Securities Commission said on Sunday it would also examine whether AirAsia broke securities laws.

The allegations were revealed as part of a record US$4 billion settlement Airbus agreed with France, Britain and the United States.

Prosecutors said the planemaker had bribed public officials and hidden payments as part of a pattern of worldwide corruption.

"This agreement and the contents were arrived at without any reference to us; neither were any explanations sought from us," Mr Fernandes and Mr Kamarudin said in their statement. "This is in clear violation of fundamental legal principles of fairness."

Airbus said at the weekend it would not comment on the Malaysian investigations.

The SFO's allegations concern a 2012 sponsorship agreement between the now-defunct Caterham Formula One racing team, founded by Mr Fernandes, and Airbus' then parent, EADS.

Mr Fernandes denied the agreement had any links to the bribery scandal.

"Caterham F1, the company alleged to have been sponsored improperly by Airbus, was at the relevant time a Formula 1 racing team that had gone round the globe promoting amongst others AirAsia, AirAsia X, GE and Airbus," Mr Fernandes and Mr Kamarudin said in the statement.

"Throughout the period we were shareholders in Caterham, the company made no profit and was eventually disposed of for one pound sterling in 2014. From start to finish, this was a branding exercise and not a venture to make profit."

Mr Tony Fernandes at the Singapore Grand Prix in Singapore on Sept 21, 2012. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES/CRISPIN THURSTON/FILE PHOTO

The SFO said last Friday that between October 2013 and January 2015, EADS paid US$50 million to sponsor a sports team which was jointly owned by two people described as AirAsia Executive 1 and Executive 2.

It said Airbus employees offered an additional US$55 million, though no payment was made.

Mr Fernandes bought Caterham together with Mr Kamarudin in 2011. The SFO said Executives 1 and 2 were "key decision makers in AirAsia and AirAsia X, and were rewarded in respect of the order of 180 aircraft from Airbus".

Analysts said the accusation against AirAsia comes at a particularly bad time as airlines grapple with a slowdown in business because of the fast-spreading coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 300 people in China and disrupted air travel. TA Securities downgraded AirAsia Group stock to "sell" from"buy".

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