Group CEO, AirAsia Berhad, Malaysia

Tan Sri Anthony Francis “Tony” Fernandes, CBE is a Malaysian entrepreneur and the founder of Tune Air Sdn. Bhd. He is credited for introducing AirAsia, the first budget no-frills airline to Malaysians with the tagline “Now everyone can fly”.

Fernandes managed to turn AirAsia, a failing government-linked commercial airline, into a highly successful budget airline public-listed company. He has since founded the Tune Group of companies. He is also the majority shareholder of Queens Park Rangers Football Club.

He worked very briefly with Virgin Atlantic as an auditor, subsequently becoming the financial controller for Richard Branson’s Virgin Records in London from 1987 to 1989.

Fernandes was admitted as Associate Member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in 1991 and became Fellow Member in 1996. He is currently a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).

Fernandes was formerly a Warner Music executive in Malaysia. He was the South East Asian regional vice-president for Warner Music Group from 1992 to 2001. When Time Warner Inc announced its merger with America Online Inc., Fernandes left to pursue his dream of starting a budget no-frills airline.

In September 2001, Fernandes purchased AirAsia and became its chief executive.

It was through Datuk Pahamin A. Rejab, the former secretary-general of the Malaysian Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry that Fernandes came to meet with then Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in October 2001.

Instead of starting from scratch, Mahathir advised Fernandes to buy an existing airline. AirAsia, the heavily indebted subsidiary of the Malaysian government-owned conglomerate, DRB-Hicom, was losing money. Fernandes mortgaged his home and used his personal savings to acquire the company, comprising two Boeing 737-300 jet aircraft and debts of US$11 million (RM40 million), for one ringgit(about 26 US cents), and transformed it into an industry player. One year after his takeover, AirAsia had broken even and cleared all its debts. Its initial public offering (IPO) in November 2004 was oversubscribed by 130 per cent.

Fernandes says his timing was in fact perfect: after 11 September 2001, aircraft leasing costs fell 40%. Also, airline lay-offs meant experienced staff were readily available. He believed Malaysian travellers would embrace a cut-rate air service that would save them time and money, especially in a tight economy. Fernandes estimates about 50 per cent of the travellers on Asia’s budget airlines are first-time flyers. Before the advent of AirAsia, he estimated that only six per cent of Malaysians had ever travelled by air.

Fernandes’ biggest achievement was to open up countries within the region to new budget carriers, which previously did not have open-skies agreements. As a result of Fernandes’ lobbying in mid-2003, Dr Mahathir brought up the idea with leaders from neighbouring countries. Those nations subsequently granted landing rights to AirAsia and other discount carriers.

In Thailand and Indonesia, AirAsia holds a minority stake in the respective local companies. Thai AirAsia, a joint venture with Shin Corporation, Thailand’s largest telecommunication conglomerate, took to the skies in Feb 2004 and has to date carried over 1 million passengers in its first year of operations. PT Awair, re-launched as a low fare airline on 8 December 2004 and subsequently renamed Indonesia AirAsia, presently serves 5 domestic destinations in Indonesia.