Tony Fernandes: The man behind AirAsia's revival

Tony Fernandes Image copyright Reuters

For more than a decade, AirAsia has been the air carrier travellers in Asia look to for booking low-cost flights.

In fact, it spearheaded budget travel in the region at a time when mainly national flag carriers dominated the scene.

AirAsia's brand image is closely tied with its chief executive, Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes, who took over operations in 2001. Almost always in jeans and an Air Asia cap when interviewed, Mr Fernandes was seen as Malaysia's answer to Richard Branson.

In the same way that Mr Branson took on the dominance of British Airways in the 1980s, Mr Fernandes wanted to compete with established long haul carriers in the region - like Malaysia's own flag carrier, Malaysian Airlines.

I remember interviewing him in 2001 and asked, incredulously, how he planned to start an airline with only two planes.

Fourteen years later, the airline operates more than 80 planes through its main brand alone, and flies to 100 destinations around the region.

When AirAsia first started flights to Singapore, it used an advertising line targeted at Singapore Airlines. "There's a new girl in town" featured AirAsia stewardesses in their red uniforms and cheekily poked fun at Singapore Airlines' long-time advertisement featuring the Singapore Girl.

In 2007, I interviewed Mr Fernandes again, this time in his home in a posh Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood. The interview focused on expansion plans, but what I was struck by was how ordinary and middle class his home seemed. His children were in the background watching TV.

He's listed as one of the richest men in Malaysia and has always been adept at spinning his marketing message out to the media. With this plane's disappearance, he's wasted no time in tweeting out messages of support to the family and has already arrived in Surabaya along with members of the Indonesian affiliate of AirAsia.

Related Topics