Tony Fernandes revolutionized Asian air travel. After leaving a career in the music industry, the Malaysian national mortgaged his house to buy a failing air carrier with just two planes. Twelve years later, AirAsia boasts 150 aircraft and carries more than 40 million people each year. A European model of budget air travel has opened up countless new destinations to the continent’s emerging middle class, and as of February 2013, Forbes Asia valued Fernandes’ net worth at $625 million. In addition, the sports fanatic owns London premier league soccer club Queens Park Rangers and Lotus Racing Formula One team. He recently completed his first season hosting the hit Asian version of The Apprentice. TIME caught up with him on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, Indonesia.
You built what we consider AirAsia today almost from scratch. Were you always confident of success?
Not at all. I started with very little money and no experience in the airline industry — I think a betting man would say there’s a fairly good chance he’s going to fail. But I didn’t want to sit there at 55 and think ‘I wish I’d done that.’ I quit my job and flew to London and saw Stelios [Haji-Ioannou] of [European budget airline] Easyjet on TV. It was like the messiah had shown me the way. I thought ‘Right, this is my destiny – I’m going to start an airline.’ But I was terrified of failure; not because I’m afraid of failure — I’d rather fail than not try at all — but because the company I bought was part of a huge conglomerate and was never going to go bust, and if I failed [after my takeover] 300 people were going to lose their job. That terrified the hell out of me.
So, do you fly AirAsia much yourself?
Yeah, all the time. I get a few advantages – I get a hot seat without having to pay for it! It’s funny, but I feel more comfortable in AirAsia than any other airline, maybe because I know the staff. I flew on a premium airline the other day — in row 28 — and I thought that our service was much better. But I’m a bit biased!
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The tagline for AirAsia is “Now everyone can fly!” How important is aspiration?
It’s critical, you’ve got to have aspiration. China before aspiration and China after aspiration is a different country. We’ve all got to have aspiration whether it’s that good-looking girl or QPR getting promoted, that’s what we live for. [Aspiration] is the fundamental ingredient in the culture I’ve built at AirAsia as there were no female pilots [in Malaysia] before AirAsia, but now there are. We’ve had boys who were carrying bags for us who are now pilots, we’ve had telephone attendants who are now CEOs. We have a Miss Thailand flying for us now. First she was cabin crew, then she pulled me up in a bar one day and said ‘I want to be a pilot’ and I said go for it, and then she told me she wanted to enter Miss Thailand. She then entered Miss Universe and came fifth I think.
You left the music business to start AirAsia; what skills did you bring with you?
I’ve always loved planes — my three loves in life are planes, sport and music, and I’ve now dabbled in all of them. But I’m an old-fashioned guy and cash is cash. The music business taught me about marketing and PR. And the way we manage people [at AirAsia] is very different to any other airlines, and I’ve taken that all from my days in the music business.
Speaking of music, what are you listening to at the moment?
I’ve just downloaded Bruno Mars, I love the song Treasure. And the Killers — that’s a great band. I’ve very eclectic tastes, I have 9,000 CDs and 8,000 albums downloaded — I have anything apart from Country and Western. I struggle a bit with Country and Western.
Perhaps you need to experience it at the source, any plans to open AirAsia routes to the U.S.?
One day. Our plan is to open hubs in Japan and Manila and fly to Hawaii and the west coast of America. Nothing immediate. We sponsored the Oakland Raiders once — that was [supposed to be] our start and we would have flown there as airport was much cheaper.
You cancelled your flights to Europe because of rising costs, will they come back?
I’m desperate to get the flights to Europe, but we didn’t have the right plane then, but the new Airbus 330-300 in 2016 will have the range to get to London. The green tax [calculated on length of flight from Europe] I thought was a little bit unfair — Emirates were only paying half the green tax to Dubai, but in fact 90% of those customers were actually flying on to Australia or Asia. I can understand the green tax, but I think they’re discriminatory against the airline industry as our carbon emissions are 3%, whereas cars [emit much more]. But [to go after drivers] would be political suicide.
APEC has been talking a great deal about innovation, but the airline industry in some ways seems set in stone. How do you continue to innovate?
We innovate by driving more value to the consumer. No one used the internet [for flying in Asia] before we came, and we are driving very hard for mobile — I think the check-in experience is the world’s worst experience in life. I think that could be done much better. I think we can do duty-free cheaper, offer more products and almost be a Walmart on the aircraft. We’re working on a new inflight system that will really rock the world. Innovation is not just about technology — 50% of our routes had never been done before.
How was the experience of taking Donald Trump’s role in the Asian version of The Apprentice?
I turned it down for many years but they kept coming back to me and used my line of “we’ll never take no for an answer.” I’m amazed at the success of the show. I walk around Indonesia and everyone talks about The Apprentice — in the Philippines I’m a demigod now as I picked a Filipino as winner. The best part I enjoyed was seeing 12 kids fighting their guts out — it was very un-Asian. I had people give up the chance to get married to get on the show, give up their jobs. It was beyond me. It gave me a lot of encouragement that the future of Asia looks great.