Posted by: Frederik Balfour on June 29, 2009
What could have prompted Malaysian budget airline AirAsia to sign a sponsorship deal with the Oakland Raiders of the NFL when it does not even fly to the U.S? Well, according to Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes, it’s all part of his plan to build a global branding image. “We certainly confused the world today” Fernandes told me when I reached him on his cell phone [how many airline CEOs do you know who would give out their cell phone to a reporter?] after my editor in New York [hat tip to David Rocks] forwarded me a press release about the Raiders Deal.
But the arrangement isn’t really so confusing. Having already cracked the U.K. market with flights to London, Fernandes is now setting his sights on the U.S. Though Air Asia hasn’t formally made an application to the FAA yet, he hopes to fly across the Pacific soon. The likely first destination? Oakland. In fact, Air Asia has already painted one of its Airbus A340s with Raiders livery and it is running a contest in Asia to fly 1000 fans to Oakland for the opening Raiders game in September. It doesn’t bother Fernandes that the Raiders haven’t had such a great record lately, nor does the fact the American football doesn’t have much of a following in soccer-mad Asia. He’s also not the first Asian executive to sponsor sports teams in the U.S. even when it doesn’t market there. Chinese sportswear maker Li Ning, sponsored the U.S. Olympic Ping Pong team last summer, even though it hasn’t started selling its shoes in the U.S. yet.
Fernandes has never been one to follow convention, which is probably why his scrappy upstart airline has become such an extraordinary Asian success story. Back in 2001 when the region was reeling from the Asian Financial Crisis, he took a bankrupt carrier and relaunched it with just two planes flying out of Kuala Lumpur. Since then Fernandes has ramped up to 81 aircraft and 122 destinations in 16 countries — often smaller cities others had ignored, pioneering budget aviation in Asia. He also took the company public. This year he expects to carry 24 million passengers in 2009, up 30% from 2008. With that kind of track record, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if Air Asia starts giving U.S. international carriers a run for their money long before the Raiders make it to another Super Bowl.