Tony Fernandes: 'I've Always Been a Contrarian'

AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes near the proposed site of the new AirAsia terminal in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 8, 2009.  (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)
HONG KONG, July 7, 2009 -  The founder and CEO of AirAsia, Tony Fernandes, is confident about the future of his company, despite the difficulties faced by the aviation industry as a whole. Speaking as part of the Hong Kong Center’s Entrepreneurs Series, Fernandes pointed out that AirAsia had expanded more than 20 percent in the first quarter of the year, with profits growing 26 percent in the same period.

Fernandes defied conventional wisdom in spectacular fashion by launching AirAsia, a no-frills budget airline, three days after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The carrier is now the largest low-cost airline in Asia, transporting over 18 million passengers to more than 110 destinations in 2008 alone.

Fernandes told moderator William Pesek Jr., Asia Pacific Columnist for Bloomberg News, “I’ve always been a contrarian. We find the best time to expand is when everyone else is contracting and the incumbents have lost their way and not sure where they are going. People are still going to fly. It’s at what cost, what price. We’ve always put our foot on the accelerator and so far it’s worked.”

On the current poor economic climate, Fernandes noted, “There’s always business to be done. It’s about whether you are aggressive in going out and getting it or putting [your] head in the sand and crying about it, so we feel there are great opportunities out there.”

He offered some practical advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. “I don’t want to sit there at 55 and say I should have tried. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I think I’ve done whatever I’ve wanted to do. If you fail, it doesn’t matter, because at least you’ve tried and you can do it again. Believe in your gut feeling and don’t listen to anyone else’s advice.”

Fernandes is very much hands-on and performs “duty days” as frontline staff once a month, including stints as cabin crew, manning the check-in counters, and as a baggage handler. This, he says, allows him to experience issues faced by those on the ground and to listen to suggestions from them.

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Fernandes was financial controller for Virgin Records in London and at 27, became the youngest managing director of Warner Music (Malaysia) before setting up the airline. He established AirAsia X, a long-haul joint venture with Richard Branson, in 2007.