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NEW YORK (AP) — 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.

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.

The International Air Transport Association predicts that routes to, from and within the Asia-Pacific region will carry an additional 1.8 billion annual passengers by 2034, for an overall market size of 2.9 billion. Within two decades, the region is expected to account for 42 percent of global passenger traffic.

"Air travel is made for Asia," Fernandes told The Associated Press in 2002. "You can generally drive from one end of Europe to another or take a train, but that's not the case here. You want to try driving from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok? Good luck, mate!"

In some ways, Fernandes' career echoes the empire Richard Branson created with his Virgin Group. (Fernandes once worked as an accountant for Branson's company.) AirAsia has expanded beyond Malaysia with affiliates in Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and India, as well as a long-distance airline, AirAsia X. Fernandes has also launched the no-frills Tune Hotels and a mobile phone company and financial services arm, just as Virgin did.

There was even one time when Fernandes beat Branson — well, actually his Formula One racing team finished two spots ahead of Branson's. The two businessmen had placed a wager on the race. And in May 2013, it was time for Branson to pay up.

Branson had his legs shaved, put on lipstick and squeezed into a red skirt to serve as a flight attendant on an AirAsia flight from Perth, Australia, to Malaysia. In a possible act of revenge, he spilled orange juice on Fernandes, a passenger on the trip.

"He looked at me, I said, 'Don't you dare,' and the next thing I know, he tipped the whole tray on me,'" Fernandes told the AP at the time. "I was walking around the flight in my underwear for a while because I didn't bring another pair of trousers."

Fernandes has had his own share of mishaps.

On the day Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, Fernandes said on Twitter that the aircraft's radio had failed but that the plane landed and all were safe. He later deleted the tweet. That plane still hasn't been found.

A few weeks later, AirAsia had to pull its inflight magazine for an article boasting that its well-trained pilots would never lose a plane. The magazine was printed before Flight 370 disappeared. But it was a painful poke for a country reeling from the loss.

Now, Fernandes must find the right thing to say as his own plane is lost at sea.

__

Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.

Poll

Vote on the biggest local story in 2014: See poll below

It has been an eventful year in Lodi, from the antics of a wild turkey named Tom Kettleman to the announced closure of the General Mills plant. What do you see as the biggest story of the year?

Total Votes: 368

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