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Flamboyant AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes faces his first major crisis

Tony Fernandes at a news conference at Juanda International Airport following the disappearance of AirAsia Flight QZ8501. (Reuters)
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AirAsia was failing and falling ever deeper into debt in 2001 when Tony Fernandes bought the carrier from Malaysian conglomerate DRB-Hicom for a single Malaysian ringgit — worth less than 35 U.S. cents at the time, according to the Reuters news agency.

Fernandes, a flamboyant Malaysian-born, British-educated former Warner Music executive, had dreamed of operating his own budget airline since he was in school, he said in 2010 to the BBC.

Fernandes, 50, built the small, heavily indebted company into a dominant player in Southeast Asia with a low-cost model that focuses on short and cheap flights. He then started AirAsia X, which focuses on long-haul flights.

“Now everyone can fly,” became AirAsia’s motto. Since then, the airline has won numerous accolades as one of the world’s leading low-cost carriers. AirAsia, which started with two planes when Fernandes bought it, now operates a fleet of more than 160 AirBus A320 aircraft, according to the company.

As a young boy, Fernandes dreamt up the idea of cheap flights across Asia while he attended a boarding school in England and couldn’t frequently visit home because of the high cost of travel.

“For my first ever flight in AirAsia X, I refused to do the launch to Australia and China, and everyone thought it was a bit odd,” Fernandes told the BBC in 2010. “But I wanted my first flight to be London-Kuala Lumpur.”

Fernandes now faces his biggest crisis as AirAsia’s chief executive. After AirAsia Flight QZ8501 lost contact with air traffic control on Sunday, Fernandes took to Twitter to express support for his employees:

“I as your group ceo will be there through these hard times,” he also tweeted. “We will go through this terrible ordeal together and I will try to see as many of you.”

Fernandes called the disappearance of a plane his “worse [sic] nightmare.”

But, AFP observed, he “maintained an image of calm Sunday even as his company plunged into its first major crisis.”

“We are very devastated by what has happened. It’s unbelievable,” he said at a news conference at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, where Flight QZ8501 originated. According to Reuters, Fernandes tried to comfort families at the Indonesian airport on Sunday night; but, the news agency reported, “the airline could offer little besides food, a hotel for the night and assurances that all was being done to find the lost plane.”

“Our first priority is to look after the families,” Fernandes told relatives at a makeshift crisis center, according to Reuters.

Seen as the Richard Branson of Southeast Asia, Fernandes seems to have also adopted the Virgin airline owner’s larger-than-life persona.

Fernandes even once worked as an accountant for Branson’s Virgin company, and the two are now close friends. Last year, Fernandes — who is known to prefer jeans to suits — became the host of Apprentice Asia, a reality game show.

In 2013, Branson dressed up as an AirAsiaX female flight attendant after losing a bet to Fernandes over a Formula 1 race.

“He is an entrepreneur, visionary, knight and adventurer. Sir Richard can now also add AirAsia flight attendant to his long list of credentials,” Fernandes joked aboard that flight.

Fernandes has an estimated worth of $650 million and is the 28th-richest person in Malaysia, according to Forbes. The airline’s revenue increased by 3 percent in the most recent quarter compared with the same time last year, the company reported, although its profits have fallen by 14 percent as the political unrest in Thailand affects its flights there.

AirAsia shares fell 11.6 percent at the start of trading in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, according to Reuters. The company owns 49 percent of Indonesia AirAsia, Reuters noted.

Following the disappearance of Flight QZ8501, Endau Analytics aviation analyst Shukor Yusof told AFP: “This incident will not dampen Fernandes’ business spirit.” It is “such an unfortunate incident,” Yusof said. But, he predicted: “I think the people will rally behind AirAsia.”

The region’s airline industry has already been hit with two major disasters this year; in March, a Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared with 239 on board and still remains missing. Then, in July, 298 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 died when it was shot down over Ukraine.

An article in an AirAsia in-flight magazine that went to press before Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared boasted that AirAsia pilots would never lose a plane because of their “continuous and very thorough” training. “Rest assured that your captain is well prepared to ensure your plane will never get lost,” the column said, according to the Associated Press.

In April, AirAsia executives apologized for the article, and copies were pulled after a social media backlash, AP reported.

“Once again, apologies,” Fernandes tweeted then. “It has been a difficult time for all in the industry.”

[This post has been updated.]