AirAsia premier dishes out the red cards

Niall O’Keeffe, managing editor of sister title Flight International, sends this report:

Few were spared when jovially combative AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes addressed Airbus’s Innovation Days event in Toulouse yesterday.

Once Fernandes had exhausted his reserves of magnanimity with a fulsome tribute to outgoing EADS chief Louis Gallois – after whom AirAsia has named its 100th A320 -no one was safe. First to get it in the neck during the special guest’s wide-ranging speech was no less a luminary than Germany’s Chancellor. “The [A320 delivery] ceremony was suppose to be in the evening but Louis had a meeting with this woman. Her name is Angela Merkel. I don’t know why he dumped her for me. I’m much better looking… But I suppose the German Chancellor is more important than someone who’s bought 375 planes.” Cue much squirming among the Airbus contingent, and much guffawing elsewhere in the room.

At least one Liverpool-supporting journalist in the audience was highly gratified when the soccer-obsessed Fernandes trained his sights on a certain rival club. “As a small brand, we sponsored Manchester United,” he recalled. “Very painful for me to sponsor Manchester United because I hate that football club. But you have to be a prostitute once in a while.”

Or, as he put it more diplomatically: “We only had seven planes, but we went out there and sponsored Manchester United, and we were there with huge brands: Vodafone, Budweiser. But we were never afraid. Many airlines don’t see the value of branding and we wouldn’t have grown from 200,000 passengers to 32 million without the branding we did.”

Still on the soccer theme, a more self-deprecatory note was struck when the low-cost airline supremo – who owns London club Queen’s Park Rangers – spoke about AirAsia’s decision to sponsor the UK’s Premier League referees. “This has haunted me, because my club’s had the most people sent off,” he lamented. “I will be stopping sponsoring the referees. But it’s been fantastic.”

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How did he land the deal in the first place? “I went to the Premier League, and it was me versus Emirates, and Emirates had a gazillion dollars, and I had about 10. So I made a big presentation and said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to support us. There’s about two people in Dubai who watch football, and in Malaysia we’ve been watching football for a hundred years – plus, we’ve been fixing all your games. All the bookies come from Malaysia.’ Finally, I think I got it because I said, ‘I want to sponsor the red card.’ And they looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘When you send a player off, I want to see – and on the other side it says: now you’re suspended, have a holiday with AirAsia.’”

Involvement in soccer allows AirAsia to brand itself “the airline with balls”, Fernandes explained, noting, needlessly: “In Asia you don’t do these things, but we do it.”

Naturally, the former music-industry executive found time to tear into local competitor Singapore Airlines: “If you really look closely at Singapore stewardesses, they all look the same. They have the same bun in their hair, the same lipstick, the same nail polish, and the same fake smile. I’m sure they’re manufactured in Lee Kuan Yew’s back garden.”

The taunting didn’t stop there, “When we went to Singapore, we decided to be a bit cheeky, and we took this ad out and we put four of our girls there, and we said, ‘There’s a new girl in town. She’s twice the fun and half the price.’ Instantaneously, everyone in Singapore knew us, and I received 50,000 letters from Singaporeans who said, ‘Whatever we do we will fly AirAsia.’” Later, he had another dig. “Singapore Airlines is a confused puppy,” he declared, citing the “ridiculously named” subsidiary Scoot. And he sounded a warning: “One day I’m going to buy Singapore Airlines.”

With tongue firmly in cheek, Fernandes availed of the Q&A session to deliver an analysis of flight-crew compensation. “Pilots are paid too much. All they do is taxi to the runway, take off, switch on autopilot and then bitch about the company for the next two hours.”

All in all, this was a rant to remember. Michael O’Leary and Akbar Al Baker will have to go some way to top it.

For hard news from Airbus’s Innovations Day event, visit

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