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He bought a budget airline for 30 cents in 2001 and turned it into one of Asia’s top budget airlines. Now, he’s ready to walk away.

Tony FernandesHe bought a budget airline for 30 cents in 2001 and turned it into one of Asia’s top budget airlines. Now, he’s ready to walk away.

AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

  • Tony Fernandes, one of the most prolific names in Asian aviation, says “good leadership is to know when to go.”
  • He doesn’t care who replaces him as long as they’re competent. 
  • He’s also non-committal about where he may land next, but says he likes private equity.

Tony Fernandes, the CEO whose name is synonymous with AirAsia and cheap flights, is ready to move on.

In September 2001, Fernandes bought the AirAsia brand from a Malaysian government-owned conglomerate for the equivalent of 30 cents at the time. He went on to turn it into one of the most popular budget airlines in Asia — even offering fares as low as $3 and in some cases for free.

At its peak, AirAsia was the fourth-largest airline in Asia, with more than 200 aircraft and 21,000 staff members across Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, per its website.

But, after the COVID-19 pandemic, Fernandes says the airline’s been through “the worst crisis of our life.” The company’s operations went bankrupt in Thailand and Japan.

And he’s ready to walk away: “Good leadership is to know when to go,” he told Bloomberg in an interview published Tuesday.

“Honestly, I don’t care where they are from,” he told Bloomberg of his successor. “We don’t really talk about race, religion, sex, sexual orientation — I don’t care, as long as you can do the job.”

Fernandes, 58, stepped down as the group CEO of the airline’s long-haul unit AirAsia X in November to focus on Capital A, a rebrand of the AirAsia Group announced in January 2022.

And though he’s already talking about plans to replace him, Fernandes doesn’t know “exactly when I press the button.” But he’s talking about these succession plans as he wants to “attract the right leaders.”

Fernandes is also noncommittal about where he may land next.

“I like private equity with an active management and helping young people change things,” he told Bloomberg. “I believe there’s a low-cost model for education and health. These are the two things that discriminate people the most.”

Fernandes’ impending exit isn’t the only major leadership shakeup in the aviation industry. Indian low-cost carrier IndiGo appointed Dutch-carrier KLM’s Pieter Elbers to the top job last year. Newly privatized carrier Air India appointed an executive of Scoot, the low-cost arm of Singapore Airlines, as CEO in June. There were also airline executive reshuffling at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines in December.

AirAsia did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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