AviationSo long, farewell to Tony Fernandes, who's stepping down from AirAsia after two decades.

Now everyone can fly and say, 'Thanks Tony'

Tony Fernandes bought Air Asia for one ringgit, defying skeptics to make it a major force in aviation in Asia.
Tony Fernandes bought Air Asia for one ringgit, defying skeptics to make it a major force in aviation in Asia.

After leading AirAsia, which he founded, to become one of the biggest airline brands in Asia, Tony Fernandes is planning to step back from the front lines and focus more on health, education, and private equity. The 58-year-old Malaysian entrepreneur will be leaving the industry as it recovers from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Around the time Tony Fernandes was launching Air Asia, an eminent head of an airline association – a former Cathay Pacific executive – told me that low-cost airlines had no future. “No chance,” he said.

They didn’t have the resources – the planes nor the personnel - to trouble the traditional carriers, he pronounced.

He was responding to a Travel Weekly Asia article I had written suggesting, “This man wants to rule the world”.

“This man”, was Tony Fernandes, and although his airlines didn’t go on to rule the world, they have ruled Asia for more than two decades.

A few weeks after writing the article, Fernandes greeted me at a trade show. He laughed about the headline and left me with the feeling that this was a man who shouldn’t be underestimated. Most especially by the legacy carriers who at the time were going about their business almost unchallenged.

At its peak, AirAsia was the fourth-largest airline in Asia, with more than 200 aircraft and 21,000 staff across Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It was always true to its low-fare motto, ‘Now Everyone Can Fly’.

There have been missteps along the way, Air Asia’s foray into Japan went out of business and Thai Air Asia stumbled into bankruptcy yet survived to continue operations. AirAsia X, the brand that was meant to pioneer low-cost long-haul flying across continents, never quite reached lofty expectations.

Kuala Lumpur-born Fernandes – the son of a Tupperware sales lady - cut his financial teeth with Warner Music in London. He bought the AirAsia brand from a Malaysian government-owned conglomerate for just one ringgit, the equivalent of 26 US cents, then mortgaged his home to establish Tune Air with his partners and used that entity to take over AirAsia.

Despite the doubters, he went on to turn the company into the most recognised low-cost airline brand across Asia.

His legacy will be a place among those aviation entrepreneurs – Richard Branson among them – who have followed their dreams and changed the face of aviation.

“Good leadership is to know when to go," Fernandes told Bloomberg, adding that he plans to talk about succession planning and attract the right leaders to carry on his legacy.

And we’ll miss him when he’s gone.

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