KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Malaysian mogul Tony Fernandes, who transformed a floundering carrier into Asia’s biggest budget airline, faces his first major crisis after an AirAsia plane went missing Sunday with 162 people on board.
AirAsia is credited with starting a revolution in the skies of Southeast Asia and has seen spectacular growth under Fernandes’ low-cost, low-overheads model despite intense competition.
The ebullient tycoon is one of Asia’s most visible entrepreneurs, carving out an image that has seen him frequently compared to colourful Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson.
Fernandes maintained an image of calm Sunday even as his company plunged into its first major crisis after an AirAsia passenger jet went missing in bad weather en route from Indonesia to Singapore.
“Obviously this is a massive shock to us and we are devastated… (But) our concern right now is for the relatives and the next of kin. That’s our number one priority,” he said after arriving in Surabaya, where most of the passengers are from.
This incident caps a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation which saw beleaguered rival Malaysia Airlines suffer two air tragedies in rapid succession.
A former record industry executive who acquired the then-failing airline in 2001, Fernandes is ranked 28th on the Forbes list of Malaysia’s richest with an estimated net worth of $650 million.
The tycoon, a flamboyant spirit in Asia’s staid business world who favours blue jeans and caps over power suits, has made a habit of defying naysayers.
He took over loss-making AirAsia 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 (US$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 profits mounting and its route system expanding worldwide.