Group CEO, AirAsia
There are some among the elite today who look at AirAsia and Tony Fernandes and see just a successful entrepreneur heading an airline that has revolutionized the aviation industry in Asean. Then there are the multitudes of everyday citizens of the region. Their appreciation of the man extends beyond the obvious. Whizzing about the region on AirAsia’s fleet of new Airbus aircraft, they experience personally the passion, commitment and fervor in running and growing an airline that is knitting together the diverse communities and cultures of Asean, a company whose staff are treated as real people and not just mere statistics, and an airline that has now become a global brand.
For five years in a row now, from 2009 to 2013, AirAsia has won the coveted World’s Best Low-Cost Airline award from Skytrax, chosen by a survey of 18 million travelers on average. It’s an accolade not just for the airline, for its hardworking staff or for Fernandes personally – it’s an honor for the region, bringing shine to Brand ASEAN at a time when the region is at a historic crossroads and is facing enormous challenges as it moves towards the integration of the region into One ASEAN Community.
To say that AirAsia is an unparalleled ASEAN success story is to merely state the obvious. When Fernandes and his friends took over the then struggling airline in late 2001, they did so armed only with a dream. Almost all of them came from the music industry and had little or no experience in running an airline. Fernandes was sneered at for his audacity and dismissed for what was seen as his delusion. What served him well in those days as well as in the journey from then to now was his total and absolute faith in his credo. And, of course, his vision and tenacity.
Together with partners Dato’ Pahamin Rajab (former chairman of AirAsia), Dato’ Kamarudin Meranun (now Deputy Group CEO of AirAsia) and Dato’ Aziz Bakar (now chairman of AirAsia), Fernandes founded Tune Air Sdn Bhd in 2001 with a vision to democratize air travel and free it from the clutches of the elite by offering low fares and high quality to make come true what is now AirAsia’s slogan – Now everyone can fly. They bought the then loss-making AirAsia from its Malaysian owner DRB-Hicom for a token one Malaysian ringgit (US$0.25), and agreed to take on the airline’s 40 million ringgit debt.
Driven by Fernandes and with the help of his partners, AirAsia repaid that debt in less than two years; despite the fact that it was operating in an extremely challenging environment in the post-September 11, 2001 era. It started with two Boeing B737 planes, six destinations and a staff of 250. From its birth in Malaysia, AirAsia has now grown into a regional airline group that includes the short-haul carriers AirAsia Malaysia, AirAsia Thailand, AirAsia Indonesia, AirAsia Philippines and AirAsia Japan; the long-haul carrier AirAsia X; and the new regional base AirAsia asean. AirAsia asean, officially launched in August 2012 and located in Jakarta, is entrusted with crafting group-wide strategies and polices. Of the seven members of the group, six are in the ASEAN region, which AirAsia considers its base and where it plans to set up more affiliate carriers.
AirAsia Group has a young all-Airbus fleet and operates approximately 137 Airbus A320 and 12 Airbus A330 aircraft. It flies more than 150 routes to 95 destinations, 65 of which are in ASEAN and the rest in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Australia. It has ferried more than 180 million guests. AirAsia provides employment for 10,000 people from across the region and beyond.
Even jaded and cynical pundits who dismissed AirAsia are amazed by its success. The focus on delivering value and high quality at affordable prices unleashed a boom in air travel in the ASEAN region unprecedented in the region’s history. Pent-up demand among the people of ASEAN, frustrated at the high fares, arrogance and monopolistic practices of legacy carriers, helped make AirAsia a by-word for easy connectivity in the region. AirAsia’s route network – the sky bridges that connect the communities and cultures of this diverse region – is helping make real the dream of ASEAN integration and provides a tremendous boost to the region’s economies. Innovative and creative marketing turned the once-staid industry on its head.
AirAsia Malaysia and AirAsia Thailand are now publicly listed in their respective country bases; AirAsia X will be going public in July 2013, while AirAsia Indonesia plans to list in the fourth quarter of 2013. AirAsia Malaysia successfully orchestrated one of the largest public offerings in Malaysia, raising 717.4 million ringgit on Bursa Malaysia (Malaysian Stock Exchange) for its future expansion, on November 22, 2004. AirAsia Thailand, meanwhile, listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand on May 31, 2012.
As AirAsia made it easier for people of all walks of life to move around ASEAN, Fernandes dreamed of linking the region to giant markets beyond to increase tourism and promote stronger social and economic ties. He created another historic first by launching AirAsia X, the world’s first successful low-cost, long-haul carrier. AirAsia X’s first route, from Kuala Lumpur to Gold Coast in Australia, was launched in November 2007. AirAsia X now directly connects ASEAN to various cities in Japan, China, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Australia. AirAsia’s short- and long-haul flights feed guests into each other, enabling a seamless transfer that provides guests with a plethora of choices at unheard of prices.
In the process of building a successful airline, Fernandes remained true to his core principles by creating a company where meritocracy is practiced, where everyone is treated as family and where everyone is equal regardless of age, gender, race or creed. AirAsia is proud that its flight crew includes more than 30 female pilots. Even as Group CEO, Fernandes’s desk is part of the open-office plan at the AirAsia asean office. The company is true to its founder’s goal of giving everyone a chance: Its employees include pilots who used to be purchasing assistants, department heads who started as baggage handlers and flight attendants who used to be administrative assistants.
Fernandes continues to dream the impossible, believe the unbelievable and never take no for an answer – not as long as there are new worlds to conquer and new ideas to explore.
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