AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes steps aside amid Airbus bribery probe

A document says Airbus paid $50 million for a sports team owned by two unnamed AirAsia executives

The airline said the two executives would be re-designated as non-independent non-executive board members | File Photo

AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes and executive chairman Kamarudin Meranun would step aside for at least two months amid allegations that the top executives accepted $50 million bribery from aerospace giant Airbus in exchange of aircraft orders.

Airbus said last week it had agreed to set aside up to 3.6 billion euros to settle a corruption probe by authorities in France, Britain and the United States. As news of the probe widened, the Malaysia-based AirAsia was named in a bribery investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO), allegedly implicating two company executives.

In a late Monday filing on Malaysia’s stock market, the budget carrier said Fernandes and Meranun would leave their positions immediately. Both men were to stand down “for a period of two months or such other period that the company may deem fit”, the airline said. The news sent shares in AirAsia plunging more than eight per cent on Tuesday.

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The airline’s board formed a committee to review the allegations, stating that Kamarudin and Fernandes would be kept as company advisors and re-designated as non-independent non-executive board members. A court document on the SFO’s website said EADS France SAS — which was later renamed as Airbus Group SAS — paid $50 million as sponsorship for a sports team owned by two unnamed AirAsia executives.

Identified as “key decision makers” in AirAsia and AirAsia X — the company long-haul arm — they were allegedly rewarded with the order of 180 aircraft from Airbus. “The payments to the sports team were intended to secure or reward improper favour by them in respect of that business,” the document said.

Both Kamarudin and Fernandes denied any wrongdoing and said in a Monday joint statement they “would not harm the very companies that we spent our entire lives building up to their present global status.” The airline previously said it was not involved in the SFO’s Airbus probe, nor was it given an opportunity to provide information to the fraud investigator office.

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Malaysia’s anti-corruption commission on Saturday said it was empowered to investigate any act of corruption committed by citizens or permanent residents anywhere outside the country. “In the case of the Airbus-AirAsia disclosures, I can confirm MACC is in touch with the UK authorities and is already investigating the matter,” chief commissioner Latheefa Koya said.

Fernandes and Kamarudin have not been shy in flaunting their wealth and both once owned the now-defunct Caterham Formula One racing team, while they are also majority owners of London football club Queens Park Rangers.

(With inputs from agencies)