airasia ceo
Tony Fernandes studied accounting at London School of Economics (LSE) before he became AirAsia's CEO. Source: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

Now everyone can fly — and with that, know of Tony Fernandes, the man known as the AirAsia CEO (his official title is group CEO of AAX).

He’s an entrepreneur and business tycoon, with ventures ranging from music and insurance to food delivery. But it was his stint as AirAsia CEO that pushed him into the spotlight.

And it was his time studying accounting at the London School of Economics (LSE) that would set him on the path to becoming AirAsia’s CEO, valued in 2020 at US$335 million.

Like many students abroad, Fernandes faced a common problem: expensive flight tickets. That means that visiting home often was certainly out of the question. 

He wanted to change this. Why shouldn’t the middle class afford frequent trips to see their family?

He aspired to make travel affordable and accessible for all, especially in Southeast Asia. 

Though his desires started then, it would be years before he ventured into the aviation scene. 

Fernandes would start his career at Virgin Communications in London —where he would almost fail to get a job.

“My work at Virgin Communications laid the foundation for everything that happened next in my career. But I almost didn’t get the job. After being turned down, I was leaving the interview and saw Virgin founder Richard Branson,” Fernandes told Medium in an interview.

Instinctively, I knew this was a make-or-break moment so I approached him. We had coffee, he made me an offer and the rest is history.”

Soon after, he jumped to Warner Music Group and served as the Southeast Asian regional vice president for nine years. Deep down, though, the Malaysian never lost sight of his dream. 

“I loved entertainment, but I also enjoyed flying, which was considered an unattainable luxury for many in the Southeast Asian region. I made it my mission to make flying accessible for everyone,” Fernandes adds. 

The first step to becoming AirAsia CEO? Buying a company for one Malaysian ringgit (approximately US$0.23)

Tony Fernandes

The originally government-owned airline was in an US$11 million debt before it was revived by Tony Fernandes. Source: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

In 2001, the tragic 9/11 terrorist attack greatly affected the aviation industry.

What came next would set the AirAsia CEO apart from other entrepreneurs.

The Malaysian saw an opportunity to make his dream come true by buying over the initially government-owned airline, AirAsia, along with its US$11 million debt for one Malaysian ringgit (approximately US$0.23).

In less than two years, AirAsia worked its way to democratise air travel for Malaysians and those in Southeast Asia.

Since then, the company has dedicated itself to offering low fares and quality air travel — a testament to AirAsia’s motto of “Now Everyone Can Fly”.

Today, the budget airline is valued at US$91.6 million as of February 2023.

It all goes to show Fernandes’s belief in making it happen. He learnt this during his boarding school days in the UK, where rugby was the sport of choice.

Being passionate about football back in Malaysia, Fernandes started the school’s first football league.

Through this, he realised that “as long as I’m clear about my goal, share my passion, and bring others along with me, others would be happy to join me if they could share my enthusiasm and conviction.”

Lessons from an entrepreneur

Tony Fernandes

Known as the AirAsia CEO, Fernandes sees his failures as lessons to be learnt and a reason to try again. Source: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP

Like any entrepreneur, the AirAsia CEO has his ups and downs. But these moments never prevented him from trying again.

For example, when AirAsia launched its first long-haul flight in 2007 from Kuala Lumpur to London, the company had to pull the plug with the rapid increase in fuel prices.

“Moving from short-haul to long-haul was too abrupt a transition, so instead we focused on the medium-haul market, with a maximum flight time of eight hours,” reflects Fernandes in his interview with Medium.

“By 2017, we were ready to try again and introduced our first route to the US, putting AirAsia back on the global map.”

For students who aspire to start their businesses, Fernandes has three nuggets of wisdom.

One, know your goal and pursue it relentlessly; Two, be flexible and turn setbacks into learnings; and lastly, don’t be afraid to fail.

“People underestimate the value of failure. No one gets everything right the first time around — you will stumble and fall along the way. But every time that happens, you get better, smarter, and those lessons will help you get where you want to be eventually,” the entrepreneur told Medium.