On a wing and a sloganA storm breaks around AirAsia’s boss
Tony Fernandes gets caught on the wrong side of Malaysia’s election
“YOU only have one vote so use it wisely,” advised the captain of a lunchtime AirAsia flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur on May 9th. It was the third time he had reminded passengers of Malaysia’s election that day. Travellers delighted by the personal touch shook his hand as they disembarked. The pilot was not freelancing. AirAsia had planned to provide 120 flights with reduced fares to help Malaysians get home to vote (in the end, half of the flights were approved by the airline’s regulator). And the low-cost carrier’s political play went further than encouraging people to vote. Tony Fernandes, its British-Malaysian boss, arranged for an AirAsia plane to be painted with the slogan of the ruling coalition of Najib Razak, the prime minister at the time. Mr Fernandes also appeared in a video attributing the success of his business to the Malaysian government.
Then came the most astonishing political result in the country for 61 years, as 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister, defeated Mr Najib. On May 13th Mr Fernandes went in front of a camera again. He apologised for having “buckled” under pressure applied by the defeated administration of Mr Najib (the two men are pictured, in the centre). “It wasn’t right and I will forever regret it,” he said.
Among the explanations he offered for his behaviour, one was that his industry is tightly regulated, meaning that his airline needs to be in the government’s good books. Yet other carriers managed to stay above the political fray. Mr Fernandes may have hoped that he could improve AirAsia’s lot at Kuala Lumpur International Airport by buttering up those he assumed would win. Many of the firm’s operations are based at KLIA2, a dingy terminal with leaky loos and unappetising food.
AirAsia’s operations at home are among its most lucrative, which explains why its boss is now desperate to appease Malaysians annoyed by his antics. (The firm’s share price still dropped by a tenth the day after Mr Fernandes’s contrite display.) For good measure, he also threw some mud at the former administration, alleging that the Malaysian Aviation Commission pushed him to cancel special flights for voters, perhaps because support for Mr Najib’s Barisan Nasional is mainly in poor rural communities and people flying in might have been more likely to vote for the opposition (the commission denies having done this). Mr Fernandes also revealed that other officials wanted him to remove the chairwoman of AirAsia X, a long-haul service, for criticising the government. Investigations into the claims are planned.
The furore is unlikely to bother AirAsia for long. It is hugely successful. Grown from the ruins of a state-owned firm which Mr Fernandes bought in 2001 for 1 ringgit (about $0.26 at the time), the AirAsia group, which includes six low-cost airlines, now has over 200 planes carrying over 60m passengers annually. Customers in its other markets, such as the Philippines, Thailand and Japan, care less about political vagaries in Malaysia than they do about cheap travel.