AirAsia tragedy introduces U.S. to an iconic CEO

Dan Weissmann Dec 29, 2014
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AirAsia tragedy introduces U.S. to an iconic CEO

Dan Weissmann Dec 29, 2014
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The disappearance of AirAsia flight 8501 is a story with lots of sadly familiar questions: What exactly happened, and where and how? Is there any hope for survivors?

One less-familiar element has been the quick response by the company and its CEO, Tony Fernandes, who has been talking to family members and taking to Twitter with the latest news.  For U.S. audiences, the story has been an introduction to an iconic Asian CEO and the innovative company he created.

In 2001, Tony Fernandes took over AirAsia and its enormous debts for 29 cents. He had a new idea: a budget airline for Asia.

It’s like Spirit Airlines in the U.S. — super-low fares, zero frills — but without the customer unhappiness that has become almost a trademark for Spirit. AirAsia gets great ratings for customer satisfaction. The difference is the customer that AirAsia serves.

They’re really grabbing passengers who have never flown before,” says Vinay Bhaskara, a senior business analyst with Airways News. “And they’re very transparent about their business model. You’re going to have to pay extra if you want extra.”

For many AirAsia customers, flying itself is a huge upgrade, as reflected in the airline’s motto: “Now, everyone can fly!”

“That’s an amazing concept — bringing air travel to the masses,” says aviation consultant Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International.

By 2013, AirAsia was a network of regional airlines, and Fernandes was starring on an Asian version of “The Apprentice.” 

“All of these young business people were dying to work with him because of the mystique, and because of what he had actually accomplished,” says Richard Turen, a luxury travel agent and a senior contributing editor for Travel Weekly.

Fernandes has branched out in other ways. He has a majority stake in an English Premier League football team and he’s opened a chain of budget hotels that Turen says fill a new niche — something like a bridge between a hostel and a resort.

“It’s like, ‘Yes, you can go to a resort, and no it doesn’t have to be stuffy,'” he says. “‘And no, you don’t have to pay $70 for breakfast.'”

As the weekend’s tragedy unfolded, Fernandes sent out multiple emotional tweets, calling the event his worst nightmare.

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