Spotlight-loving AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes takes leave amid bribery investigation

Malaysia’s most famous businessman, Tony Fernandes, has taken a two-month break from his role as CEO of AirAsia while the government’s anti-graft agency looks into claims of big-money payoffs by their fleet’s sole airplane supplier, Airbus SE.

AirAsia is almost as well known for its distinctive Airbus A320s as it is for its dirt-cheap fares, and the latest accusations that the aircraft maker may have inappropriately bribed Fernandes, the top executive of a publicly traded company, to secure his business could be an even bigger threat to Fernandes’ legacy than that appalling pro-Barisan Nasional video he made prior to General Election 14.

Airbus has already admitted to illegally bribing airline officials around the world into buying more of their planes, and has agreed to pay US$4 billion in fines. Fernandes, meanwhile, was one of their best customers, converting AirAsia’s entire fleet to Airbuses from their initial fleet of Boeings, making historically gigantic orders in the process.

A 2014 appearance at the Farnborough expo, an aviation industry trade event, highlighted one such massive order from the limelight-loving Malaysian businessman, leading to a very public display of gratitude and affection from Airbus’ former sales chief.

After the four-year investigation into Airbus substantiated allegations of wrongdoing against the company, it is now turning its attention to the alleged beneficiaries of the graft. Accused of being on the receiving end of US$50 million, Fernandes made the decision to step down on Monday, but continues to deny any wrongdoing.

Behind the bribery accusation is a questionable Formula 1 sponsorship deal between Airbus and AirAsia, which Fernandes maintains was never intended to be a money-making enterprise, but merely a branding exercise.

Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) will now be looking into the allegations while Fernandes stands aside to allow for an “independent investigation,” the beleaguered businessman said.

AirAsia stocks fell by 10 percent on Monday, and another 12 percent yesterday as the news rattled the market.

Having cut his teeth working for Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, Fernandes returned to Malaysia to take over AirAsia, which would become the region’s most famous and successful low-cost carrier. At the time he paid a token RM1 (US$0.25) for the struggling airline.

Like Branson, Fernandes has never shied away from the limelight, is often photographed casually rubbing shoulders with his employees, and by all outward appearances loves publicity. (At least the good kind.)

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