Air Transport World

In tune with low fares in Malaysia: former music executive Tony Fernandes appears to have hit the right chard with AirAsia.

A smile in the airline business is a pretty rare commodity these days. But when you can turn a 46-year-old factory worker who never has been on an airplane into a frequent flier, or carry a plantation worker and 18 members of his family from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi on a promotional fare of just 20 ringgit ($4) each and still turn a profit, you can afford to smile.

Just ask Tony Fernandes. As CEO and part-owner of AirAsia, the 37-year-old has led the transformation of a money-losing also-ran into a tiny but profitable commercial brand in a part of the world that has yet to see much of the vaunted low-fare revolution. Along the way he is broadening horizons for thousands of Malaysians for whom an air journey previously was unthinkable.

Fernandes's path into the airline business was an unlikely one. A British-trained accountant, he was pursuing a career in the entertainment industry serving as VP-Asia for Warner Music when he got the airline bug. He explains that he quit the music business over his frustration with copyright piracy, a perennial problem in Asia, but in a revealing comment he adds: "I was also tired of turning unknowns into stars and then having to put up with obnoxious behavior. Planes do what you want.

And what Fernandes wanted was to try out a low-fare experiment in Malaysia. So 20 months ago he and four partners agreed to purchase failing AirAsia from its owner, auto builder DRB-Hicom, for a song. …

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