He admits he took his eye off the ball: in hindsight, a bad move. And the airline empire he had created from practically nothing paid the price, said AirAsia boss Tony Fernandes.
“I was getting a bit tired (of running the airline) so I backed off, watched football and did all those other things. I was on my way to
retirement,” he said.
He founded the Caterham Formula One team, which raced in 2010 as Lotus Racing and in 2011 as Team Lotus, and became majority owner of English football club Queens Park Rangers in 2011.
His ventures made him an international face and AirAsia, a global brand. “I don’t regret it but from AirAsia’s perspective, it wasn’t the best thing to do. The airline suffered from the lack of (my) attention” Fernandes said.
He added in his typical unabashed manner: “When you have a very strong leader, which I am – not to say I am a good leader but a strong personality – and then you disappear, all the little Napoleons become much stronger and they all try and fight each other and we become disharmonious.”
He had met The Sunday Times at the Marina Mandarin on Friday after speaking at the Asean Leaders Series organised by Nanyang Technological University’s Nanyang Business School.
During a 25-minute interview, Fernandes spoke of the need for Asean integration and the biggest nightmare that hit AirAsia – the Dec 28, 2014 crash of Flight QZ8501.
An official probe into the crash found that the system which controls the rudder – a part of the plane’s tail – malfunctioned and the pilots lost control of the aircraft. The plane flying from Surabaya to Singapore plunged into the Java Sea killing all 162 on board.
“QZ8501 gave me a big impetus to try and make things better,” he said.
A few years before the tragedy, the most devastating in AirAsia’s 14-year history, he had decided to take a back seat and leave the day-to-day running of the group to the different country heads and other senior management at its Kuala Lumpur head office. But the 2014 crash and other internal matters have put him firmly back in the captain’s chair.
Fernandes said: “A leader needs to know when to step down. Sometimes, people overstay because they like the attention. I don’t need my ego massaged. At the moment, I think I’m still effective but the time will come to go,” he said, revealing that he already has a successor in mind. Who? He did not say.
Launched in 1993 by a government-owned conglomerate, AirAsia was heavily in debt when Fernandes, 51, bought it for just 1 ringgit in 2001.
Today, the AirAsia group has more than 200 aircraft operated by eight carriers in five countries – Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and India.
There is still so much to do, said Fernandes. He is resolved, after the nightmare of QZ8501, to make AirAsia the best that it can be.
Still, time has not healed any wounds, said Fernandes, who was initially reluctant to talk about the tragedy. “Earlier during the lecture, I met someone from the audience who lost a colleague in the crash. During lunch, the events were running through my head all the time,” he said.
QZ8501 changed not just Tony Fernandes the airline boss, but the man too. “You’re here one day and gone the next so make the most of every day. Be positive. Life is great. People who moan about life really irritate me. I appreciate every single day that I’m on this earth. Too many people take this for granted.
“Seeing the fragility of life through QZ8501 has made me even more determined to do the best in whatever I do and take better care of myself,” he said.
As for current pressing aviation issues, he spoke of the need for the 10-member Asean group to step up the pace towards integration.
While Indonesia, for example, has been liberal in giving carriers from other countries air rights to fly to its cities, it has yet to ratify a deal, which it was supposed to by the end of last year, to allow airlines from all 10 Asean states to fly freely within the region.
“Asean needs to forget about consensus and just move on… If Indonesia at the moment does not see the benefits of open skies, then so be it… It’s just a matter of time before it does.”
The rest of Asean can go ahead with open skies and other initiatives, he suggested.
Whether it is a common visa policy, safety rules or air traffic navigation procedures, moving as a single entity will benefit not just Asean’s air sector, but tourism as well.
For example, it would be sensible if all airlines within Asean are subject to the same safety standards and rules.
On tourism benefits with liberalisation, he said: “When people come to Asia, they want to spend two days in Singapore, three in Malaysia, maybe four in Thailand.
“Why make it difficult with so many visas to apply for?”
Where countries have let their barriers down, everyone has benefited, he explained, highlighting the opening of the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur air route in 2008 as a prime example. What was once a Singapore Airlines-Malaysia Airlines duopoly is now one of the world’s busiest international air links.
Fernandes said: “Some days, I can’t even get a seat on my own airline!”
Those who object to liberalisation say that bringing the walls down would benefit mainly stronger players like AirAsia.
Fernandes admits that may be the case. “But what’s wrong with that?” he retorted.
“Are we not creating jobs? We pay taxes where we operate. We employ people there. Everyone benefits. What’s the downside?
“McDonald’s has definitely taken a share of the kway teow man’s business. Starbucks has killed kopitiams. I don’t see anyone complaining about that.”
There is also more scope for airlines within the region, whether low-cost or full-service, even as they compete fiercely, to work together to drive efficiencies, for instance, in aircraft maintenance or to speak as one to lobby airports for more competitive rates and charges.
Fernandes, who has good relations with the chief executives of Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways and Garuda Indonesia, hopes to also get to know Singapore Airlines (SIA) chief Goh Choon Phong.
“I’m probably one of SIA’s best customers on the Singapore-London route. The crew are always fantastic and treat me really well. They surprised me with a birthday cake and card on one flight and the pilot even mentioned on the public announcement system that I was on board.”
Fernandes, who flew in for a day of back-to-back meetings, said at the end of the chat with The Sunday Times: “Mr Goh (of SIA) has never reached out to me, nor I him.
“Perhaps I will be inspired after this chat to change that.”
Karamjit Kaur is a columnist with Deutsche Presse-Agentur and an Aviation Correspondent with The Straits Times