He enters the room with a practiced but sincere smile, sporting his trademark style — t-shirt and jeans with a blazer. It didn’t feel surreal to finally meet Tony Fernandes in person, in fact, it felt almost normal.
“I hope people see that there is nothing special about me, there’s no magic. I’m just a simple guy who has dreams… I have had many spectacular failures,” says the co-founder of Asia’s biggest low-cost airline, AirAsia, on the sidelines of his book launch in Kuala Lumpur.
Fernandes’ autobiography, Flying High, is perhaps testament to the normalcy of his life — the struggles to reach where he is now, and of course, his dedication to realise his dreams. He jokingly adds that writing the book was probably the hardest thing he’s done in his career.
“I’m quite old now. I’m 53 years old, there’s a lot to remember writing this book. As you write, you remember… I’ll tell you what I’ve learnt from writing this book, I’ve learnt that I am very lucky to have an amazing life. The book gave me the opportunity to see my whole life. You never have the chance to sit back and reflect, but doing this gave me that chance.”
His deep chuckles and odd jokes make the self-made billionaire seem less intimidating. His public relations is almost seamless, integrated into his very being. A quick read of the first few chapters of his book gives you an insight into his life — making connections is what he is about.
‘I’VE FAILED SPECTACULARLY’
Flying High recounts Fernandes’ journey from a young homesick boy in a British boarding school with a box full of dreams, to his time at Warner Music, and finally as AirAsia’s CEO.
“This book is proof that dreams do come true, and I hope it will encourage others to pursue their true passion… Even if you fail, it doesn’t matter, at least you tried and you can do it again,” he says.
He recalls the early days of starting AirAsia with his partner Kamarudin Meranun: “Everyone thought we were crazy. They said we had no business running an airline and it wouldn’t work.”
Fernandes urges youths not to be scared of failures, reminding them that it takes a lot of hard work — and there are no shortcuts. “I’ve failed spectacularly. Formula One was a disaster (but) I have no regrets,” he says.
People in Asia, he notes, are terrified of failure, however, it shouldn’t be the case. “Sometimes second tries are better,” he says with a chuckle and cheeky glint in his eyes, likely a tongue-in-cheek reference to his recent marriage.
In his book, Fernandes writes a chapter on Formula One: “From the outside, my Formula One experience looks pretty shambolic: I ended up in court, created a team that didn’t do well and in the process lost a lot of money… You’d mark it up as a disaster. But, while all that is true, I actually think F1 was good for me and for AirAsia.”
Fernandes also dedicates a chapter to the loss of AirAsia Flight 8501 — which crashed in the Java Sea on December 28, 2014 — and how the tragedy has shaped and strengthened his resolve for better, safer operations. “It’s not always great, sometimes there are tears… But you learn to deal with it.”
His tenacity to rise above adversity makes him the mogul he is today, and he hopes that this will be the main takeaway from Flying High.
NOW, ALMOST EVERYONE CAN FLY
Asked whether or not he thinks AirAsia has done its part to enable more people to fly, Fernandes says AirAsia is a fairy tale, adding that the world should be more inclusive.
“Have I done it? Certainly in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines… in ASEAN countries I think that most people who want to fly, can fly. At KLIA2 (Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, a low-cost terminal), I have people coming up to me saying they have never flown before this,” he shares.
However, he says that in places like India, this isn’t the case, which is why he is keen to bring AirAsia there.
“A taxi driver who picked me up in India was from Chennai. I asked him how often he sees his family, he tells me once a year… It takes him four days to travel from Delhi to Chennai by train because he cannot afford air travel.”
The AirAsia chief emphasises his interest to set up base in India, because he sees a huge opportunity there. Before he dabbled in the airline industry, Fernandes saw statistics which indicated that only six per cent of Malaysians flew.
“I thought to myself, well, here’s an opportunity, 94 per cent of Malaysians have not flown.”
LOW-COST, BIG IMPACT
Although AirAsia remains his main focus, Fernandes says that he has plans to introduce low-cost healthcare and education. “I am always dreaming… education and health are my two other things, although a one [united] AirAsia is my main goal.
Since initial reports came out of the tycoon’s plans for low-cost healthcare, there have been no updates, but Fernandes assures that his plans still stand.
“It is an idea, it’s a little bit out there but I believe it needs to be done… My dad was a left-wing doctor who didn’t believe in private medicine, he believed healthcare should be free and available for everyone.”
Touching on the law of averages, Fernandes says that there is definitely room for low-cost healthcare in Malaysia and ASEAN in general. “In terms of low-cost hospitals, we just want to concentrate on the 20 per cent of people who have 80 per cent of diseases.”