Running an airline is like having a baby: fun to conceive, but hell to deliver,” rued Collett Everman Woolman. Having founded Delta Air Lines and fathered two daughters, Woolman certainly knew what he was talking about. But his observation has not dissuaded many from either having babies or worse, venturing into the airline business. Its glamour quotient notwithstanding, the aviation business is a veritable graveyard of lost fortunes. Despite that poor record, though, there’s a new braveheart in town — AirAsia India.
In March 2013, Malaysian low-cost carrier (LCC) AirAsia announced its decision to enter the domestic market (its medium-haul arm, AirAsia X, already flies to Chennai, Trichy, Kochi, Bengaluru, Kolkata and will soon add a service to Madurai). The final approval for the first foreign airline to start operations in India are still awaited but Tony Fernandes, the maverick entrepreneur who along with Kamarudin Meranun acquired AirAsia from DRB-Hicom Berhad in 2001 for about 25 cents and $11 million in debt, is already working on his flight path for India.
Having brought on board Ratan Tata as chief advisor and S Ramadorai as chairman, he announced his head of Indian operations in typical, unconventional style. On March 4, 2013, Fernandes tweeted: “I have selected our CEO for AirAsia India. Very smart boy from the south, Madras. An amazing CV. Will impress all that meet. A real winner. That will bring new meaning to competition.”
Hunter gets hunted
The “smart boy” is Mrithyunjay ‘Mittu’ Chandilya. When you meet the duo for the first time, the sartorial difference between the 49-year-old Fernandes and 32-year-old Chandilya is stark. Fernandes is at ease in a pair of jeans and t-shirt while Chandilya is dressed to the nines. But, then, Chandilya wasn’t handpicked by the AirAsia board for his dress sense. He was based in Singapore, heading the Asia Pacific practice for recruitment consulting firm Egon Zehnder’s services business, when he first came to AirAsia’s notice after he called for an informal pitch.
As it happens, the cold call wouldn’t have been much use — Fernandes’ aversion to outsource any aspect of recruitment at the firm he has painstakingly grown is