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Can flamboyant entrepreneur weather crisis?

Malaysian mogul Tony Fernandes, who transformed a floundering carrier into Asia's biggest budget airline, faces his first major crisis after an AirAsia plane went missing yesterday with 162 people on board.

AirAsia is credited with starting a revolution in the skies of Southeast Asia and has seen spectacular growth under Mr Fernandes' low-cost, low-overheads model despite intense competition, reported AFP.

The former record industry executive who acquired the then-failing airline in 2001 has become one of Asia's most visible entrepreneurs and has carved out an image that has seen him compared often to colourful Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson.

Mr Fernandes maintained an image of calm yesterday even as his company plunged into its first major crisis after an AirAsia passenger jet went missing in bad weather en route from Indonesia to Singapore.

"Thank you for all your thoughts and prayers. We must stay strong," he tweeted as he left for Surabaya, where most of the passengers are from.

"My only thought (sic) are with the passengers and my crew."

Mr Fernandes is ranked 28th on the Forbes list of Malaysia's richest, with an estimated net worth of US$650 million (S$860 million).

DEFYING NAYSAYERS

The tycoon, a flamboyant spirit in Asia's staid business world who favours blue jeans and caps over power suits, has made a habit of defying naysayers.

He took over loss-making AirAsia shortly after the September 11 attacks in the United States sent the global aviation industry into a tailspin.

At the time, he was given little chance of succeeding.

He bought the airline, its two aircraft, and 40 million ringgit (S$15 million) in debt for the token sum of one ringgit, mortgaging his house to pour money into the carrier.

But with his motto "Now everyone can fly", he turned it into a growing force in the industry, with profits mounting and its route system expanding worldwide.

In 2011, Mr Fernandes struck a deal with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone for a majority stake in Premiership football team Queens Park Rangers.

Endau Analytics aviation analyst Shukor Yusof said his entrepreneurial spirit would survive yesterday's apparent tragedy.

"This incident will not dampen Fernandes' business spirit. This is such an unfortunate incident. AirAsia remains a strong budget carrier. I think the people will rally behind AirAsia," he said.

I also pray to God Almighty, begging for the safety of the passengers on the plane. I urge all Indonesians to pray so that the 155 passengers and seven crew on board AirAsia survive unhurt.

- Indonesian president Joko Widodo in a Facebook post yesterday.

Singapore aids search effort

In a statement last night, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), which manages the Singapore Rescue Coordination Centre, said that at 9.30am yesterday, it had offered assistance to Basarnas, the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency.

After confirmation from the Indonesian authorities in the afternoon, a C-130 aircraft was deployed to help in the search.

Another two planes are scheduled to join the efforts today, the statement said.

At 11.55pm yesterday, Second Minister for Defence Chan Chun Sing sent off the Formidable-class frigate, the RSS Supreme, and a missile corvette, the RSS Valour.

Mr Chan commended the Republic of Singapore Navy servicemen for mobilising at short notice and wished them well for the operation.

The CAAS will also be sending an officer to Jakarta to assist in the coordination with the Indonesian authorities on search operations.

The Ministry of Transport's Air Accident Investigation Bureau has also offered the Indonesian authorities two teams of specialists and two sets of underwater locator beacon detectors to assist with the search.

By about 7.50pm yesterday, Indonesian officials said the search in the Java Sea had been halted due to fading light.

The search will resume at first light today.

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