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BigPay: A capital idea for AirAsia pioneer

Photo: Getty Images

Tony Fernandes made his fortune after launching an airline in Malaysia 21 years ago. But as Covid continues to batter AirAsia, he’s hoping to remake his fortune with a new, fintech-based super app – and transform Asean banking much as he did with the aviation industry.

You will doubtless recognize Tony Fernandes, the Malaysian businessman, as the one-time music industry executive who cloned his flamboyant former boss and mentor, Richard Branson of Virgin Group fame – even down to his red-white corporate livery – to launch budget carrier AirAsia in Kuala Lumpur 21 years ago.

Indeed, you have probably flown with him, one of the nearly 2 billion passengers that AirAsia has carried over the past two decades.

With its catchy motto ‘Now Everyone Can Fly,’ AirAsia made Fernandes a household name. After all, he put many Malaysians onto a plane for the first time in their lives, and very cheaply too.

Fernandes’ no-frills airline transformed Asian aviation. His cut-price, low-margin tactics spawned copy-cat carriers across the region that revolutionized Asian skies and forced uncomfortable competition upon the region’s flabby, government-owned flag-carriers.

Since AirAsia made many millions of dollars for him, and helped Fernandes turn himself into a global corporate personality (he has the Asian version of The Apprentice, and owned a Formula One team), you would assume he’s a dyed-in-the-wool airline guy, right?

Think again.

“I don't think I was ever an airline guy,” Fernandes tells Asiamoney.

“I think I always was a non-airline guy to be honest, but the airline was a conduit into creating this kind of lifestyle, which is about serving the underserved, really reaching the masses and allowing people to have products that they probably wouldn't have access to,” he says.


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Eric Ellis
Eric Ellis has covered Asia for Euromoney since 2006. He is a former southeast Asia-correspondent for Fortune Magazine and Time, and an ex-Asia correspondent for Australia’s economic and business newspaper the Australian Financial Review.
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