KUALA LUMPUR: Tony Fernandes has been hailed for transforming Air Asia from a floundering carrier into the region’s largest budget airline, but now faces his biggest challenge after an Air Asia plane went missing with 162 on board.
The 50-year-old Malaysian mogul was praised by analysts for his handling of the immediate aftermath of the disappearance of QZ8501, an Airbus A320-200 that had been flying from Surabaya in Indonesia’s east Java to Singapore before requesting a change of flight plan due to stormy weather.
But the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year also marks Fernandes’s first major challenge since taking over the airline in 2001.
The tweets by the former record industry executive, praising his airline’s crew, placing faith in search and rescue operations, and thanking neighboring governments for their help, were cited by analysts. They said Fernandes’s social media updates were helping an airline tied closely to its group chief executive.
Daniel Tsang, a Hong Kong-based aviation analyst at Aspire Aviation, contrasted Fernandes’s response to the crisis with Malaysia Airline’s handling of MH370’s mysterious disappearance earlier this year.
“This shows air travellers that Air Asia cares and this is in stark contrast to Malaysia Airlines’ handling which was slow and disorganized,” he told AFP.
Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation research firm Endau Analytics, added that Fernandes’s
“Composed and responsible” leadership was “inspirational to his staff and victims’ families”.
MH370 disappeared on March 8 with 239 people aboard on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Some frustrated families of the missing passengers have bitterly blamed the government and airline for what they characterized as a bungled search and rescue response, claiming critical information was withheld.
Malaysia and the national carrier have strongly denied all the accusations.
Fernandes, meanwhile, has fired off a series of tweets, including one in which he wrote: “I am touched by the massive show of support especially from my fellow airlines. This is my worst nightmare. But there is no stopping.”
At a press conference in Surabaya on Sunday, Fernandes said: “We are very devastated by what has happened. It’s unbelievable.”
“Our concern right now is for the relatives and for the next of kin — there is nothing more important to us, for our crew’s family, and for the passengers’ families.”
Fernandes, ranked 28th on Forbes magazine’s list of Malaysia’s richest with an estimated net worth of $650 million, is a flamboyant spirit in Asia’s staid business world who favors blue jeans and baseball caps over power suits.
He took over loss-making Air Asia shortly after the September 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 mounting profits and an expanding route network.
Air Asia has since been credited with starting a revolution in the skies of Southeast Asia, raking in several accolades and seeing spectacular growth under Fernandes’ low-cost, low-overheads model despite intense competition.
The airline, which has never before suffered a fatal accident, has more than 120 A320s and is one of European aircraft maker Airbus’s biggest customers. It is expecting nearly 360 new aircraft to be delivered by 2026.
Fernandes, who is of Indian-Portuguese descent and is 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.
He also founded the Caterham F1 Formula One team, which raced under the names of Lotus Racing and Team Lotus in 2010 and 2011, before selling the outfit earlier this year.
In 2009 fellow airline mogul and Formula One owner Richard Branson challenged Fernandes to see whose Formula One team would finish higher, with the loser dressing up as a female cabin staff member on the winner’s airline.
Fernandes, who as one of Asia’s most visible entrepreneurs is often compared to Branson, won the bet.