AirAsia's colorful chief executive built an empire on low-cost flights

Disappearance of AirAsia jet was Chief Executive Tony Fernandes' worst 'nightmare'

AirAsia’s colorful chief executive, Tony Fernandes, built an aviation empire on the dream of bringing low-cost air travel to millions of people in Asia.

The disappearance of an AirAsia jet with 162 people aboard was, he said, his worst nightmare.

“My heart bleeds for all the relatives of my crew and our passengers. Nothing is more important to us,” he said in a tweet Monday.

A Malaysian-born, British-educated accountant and former music executive, Fernandes teamed up with other investors to purchase a struggling Malaysian government-owned airline in 2001, paying the equivalent of about 25 cents.  

At the time, the airline had just two planes and more than $11 million in debt.

With Fernandes at the helm, AirAsia took on national carriers such as Malaysia Airlines and grew into a regional juggernaut, with nine affiliates and a fleet of more than 160 Airbus A320 aircraft serving destinations across Asia, according to the company’s website. Forbes magazine estimates Fernandes' net worth at $650 million.

Fernandes grew the AirAsia brand through a combination of cheap fares, attention to service and cheeky advertising.

"There's a new girl in town," the airline declared when it started flights to Singapore, poking fun at Singapore Airlines ads that feature the "Singapore Girl."

Fernandes’ outsized personality and delight in the limelight also contributed to the airline’s success, drawing frequent comparisons to his friend and former employer Richard Branson.

Fernandes began his career at Branson’s Virgin Group before rising through the ranks at Warner Music International to become vice president of Warner Music South East Asia. Last year, Branson dressed up as a female flight attendant and served customers on the flight of an affiliate, AirAsia X, after losing a bet to Fernandes over a Formula One race.

Fernandes’ aviation ambitions reportedly date back to his years as a schoolboy at Epsom College in Britain.

"I always liked the idea of a low-cost airline, having gone to boarding school and wanted to go home more often, and the idea was always in my mind," he told Reuters news service in 2011.

But his interests are broad. In 2011, Fernandes bought a majority stake in the Queens Park Rangers, an English Premier League soccer club. He also invested in a Formula One racing team, but later sold the shares. And he has hosted the Asian version of the reality TV show "The Apprentice."

A prolific tweeter, Fernandes used the social network to share updates with the public in the hours after air traffic controllers lost contact with Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 during a scheduled two-hour flight to Singapore from the Indonesian city of Surabaya on Sunday morning.

"I am touched by the massive show of support especially from my fellow airlines," he said in one tweet. "This is my worse nightmare. But there is no stopping."

He defended the airline’s safety record at a news conference Tuesday in Surabaya. Dressed in trademark jeans, and rolled-up sleeves, he said it had carried 220 million passengers in 13 years and never had a fatal accident.

"We are confident in our ability to fly people," he said. "We’ll continue to be strong and continue to carry people who never fly before."

Times staff writer Shashank Bengali contributed to this report from Mumbai, India.

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