Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes has claimed that his airline was pressured to cancel extra flights in order to suppress voter turnout at Malaysia’s historic election last week.
The May 9 election was held for the first time on a Wednesday, drawing criticism that the ruling party was trying to lower voter turnout, particularly as many people who live away from home supported the opposition alliance. But delays in receiving ballot posts, a distrust about whether they would be counted correctly, and the need for on-the-day votes to be cast in people’s home districts all drove demand for more flights.
Air Asia put on 120 extra flights, carrying up to 26,000 passengers, and reduced domestic ticket prices to a flat fee – just $25 for some flights – in order to “support Malaysians travelling back to their constituencies to vote.”
“I decided it was the right thing to do. I knew it wouldn’t be popular with the government, but I felt as an airline we had to serve the people, and at this time people really wanted to go back [home and vote],” Fernandes said in a video posted on his Facebook page on Sunday.
But the independent aviation body, Malaysian Aviation Commission (MAVCOM), reportedly ordered the airline to ditch the extra flights.
“It was realized by the government that we were ferrying so many voters. Within 24 hours we were summoned by MAVCOM and told to cancel all those flights. That put us under again tremendous pressure,” Fernandes said.
In a statement made on Monday MAVCOM said it “considers these claims serious allegations.”
“We have immediately commenced an investigation into these claims. We will keep members of the public informed,” MAVCOM said.
Fernandes made the claim as part of an apology video he posted on Facebook after facing backlash for supporting former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Malaysia’s election last week was its most highly contested ever, with incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak losing to the opposition alliance led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It is the first time in its 60-year history that Malaysia’s ruling coalition has handed over power.
Days before the election Razak travelled with Fernandes on an Air Asia plane painted with Najib’s election campaign slogan (“Make my country greater”) and also released a video supporting Najib.
In the video Fernandes apologized multiple times to “buckling” to pressure from Najib’s government.
“I’m sorry for what has gone on. I buckled at a crucial moment in our history,” Fernandes said.
“I’ve been under pressure many, many times before but I withstood it,” he said. “When I fought government regulators and authorities – always in the name of trying to get more people to fly – it was hard, I never really buckled. So people are asking me, why did I buckle at this crucial time in our history? There are no real excuses.”
He added: “Air Asia is in a very regulated industry, an industry where almost everything requires the government’s approval, from flights, to airport taxes, to routes. And so it is never very easy running an airline, and one must always support the government of the day.”
Fernandes also claimed he was asked and came under “intense pressure” by the government and the prime minister’s office to remove Air Asia X chairman Rafidah Aziz because of her involvement with the opposition alliance.
The CEO said he hoped the video supporting Najib would “appease the government”.
He now describes this as a “grave error of judgment.”
“Under the intense pressure, I buckled. It wasn’t right and I’ll forever regret it,” Fernandes said.