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Here’s how Tony Fernandes built a thriving airline with less than a dollar

By Credit Suisse

2001 was a tough time to be in the airline industry. Yet, Tony Fernandes, CEO of AirAsia, risked everything to relaunch an aging, indebted airline he’d bought for less than a dollar. Fernandes had no previous experience in the airline industry, but had mortgaged his house and cobbled a group of investors together to buy the airline for about a quarter. He slept in his office at Kuala Lumpur airport, dreaming of re-launching AirAsia as a successful budget airline.

Consensus thinking at the time said this wasn’t aviation’s moment. Every other airline in the world was scaling back and cutting overhead, while AirAsia was cutting fares. Fernandes struggled to secure investor confidence and their financial backing: none of the international banks were prepared to help him.

Except one. Credit Suisse’s involvement with AirAsia began in 2002. They privately funded a $30 million placement that laid the groundwork to propel AirAsia upward. Quickly, AirAsia not only became profitable, but also expanded, with more airplanes, new routes, and a second hub at Senai International Airport.

That success has been driven by a productive collaboration between Credit Suisse and AirAsia that is in its second decade. Beyond the initial funding round of $30 million, the bank has been involved in all of the airline’s deals, including exclusively running its 2004 $227 million dollar IPO. Credit Suisse has worked to finance AirAsia’s rapid growth through various capital market transactions as well as debt financing, commodity derivatives, and other advisory roles.

In a little over a decade, Credit Suisse has helped AirAsia grow into Asia’s largest low cost carrier, flying approximately 45 million passengers a year to more than 80 destinations. AirAsia has grown from a Malaysian domestic airline to the largest low-cost carrier in Asia in terms of fleet size and passengers carried. The story of redemption has been truly exceptional: the budget airline has been named the world’s best low-cost airline for seven years in a row, according to the aviation ratings agency Skytrax. And what began with an initial investment of less than a dollar is now an airline group with a market cap of $2.1 billion.

It’s easy to see that AirAsia is now an ASEAN champion with global recognition, but it’s looking to the future. Credit Suisse and the AirAsia leadership team are evolving their relationship from financing budget carriers in ASEAN to the rest of Asia, and through AirAsia X—which flies longer routes—to destinations further afield.

Similarly, the bank is stepping in to ensure that plans for business diversification—from Caterham, QPR, F1, to Tune and other interests—go smoothly. Ultimately, they’ll help to realize Fernandes’ biggest dreams.

This article was produced by Credit Suisse and not by the Quartz editorial staff.