New York, December 29, 2014 Agences : Tony Fernandes is more than just the CEO of AirAsia: He's the brash personality and cheerleader-like figure who gives the discount carrier its soul.AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes ponders during a press conference at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia on Sunday. (AP Photo)A flamboyant executive who loves race cars and soccer--and is known for speaking his mind, sometimes inappropriately-- Fernandes has opened air travel to millions who previously couldn't afford it.Now, with one of his planes and 162 people onboard missing, Fernandes faces what he's calling his worst nightmare."We will go through this terrible ordeal together," he told his staff via Twitter hours after Flight 8501 disappeared Sunday."Be strong," he said in another message. "Continue to be the best. Pray hard."In an age when many corporate leaders are insulated from their customers and staff, the Malaysian-born, British-educated Fernandes is a vocal leader who enjoys interacting with the public, at airports and on social media. AirAsia passengers often tweet him photos of their vacations, which Fernandes then shares with his followers.He's posed for photos

with Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao and hosted Asia's version of the reality TV show "The Apprentice." And he has a personal credo: "Believe the unbelievable. Dream the impossible. Never take no for an answer."Fernandes' reach extends well beyond airlines. In 2011, he bought a majority stake in the English Premier League club Queens Park Rangers. He is often seen in the soccer team's blue-and-white jersey, which bears AirAsia's name in bold red across the front.He also has funded a Formula One racing team, making lavish bets with owners of competing teams.But his heart remains in travel.Fernandes, 50, pioneered low-cost air travel in Southeast Asia, opening up skies previously dominated by full-service carriers like Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways. In 2001, he resigned as vice president for Southeast Asia at Warner Music to enter the airline business, a longtime dream.With some business partners, he bought struggling AirAsia and its two planes for just 26 cents and assumed its $11.4 million in debt.He was, in many ways, ahead of the industry curve: He sensed a need for low-cost flights to serve a quickly growing middle class in what's now the world's fastest-growing region for airlines.

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