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AirAsia: Low-Cost Carrier Had No Fatal Crashes Until Sunday

FILE - AirAsia Airbus A320-200 passenger jets are parked on the tarmac at low-cost terminal KLIA2 in Sepang, Malaysia, Nov. 10, 2014.

AirAsia, whose jetliner carrying 162 people disappeared into the Java Sea Sunday during a storm, has built itself into a prominent low-cost carrier in Asia and Australia and had never before had a fatal accident.

The airline now carries more than 40 million passengers a year to 100 destinations and has a fleet of 160 jets.

But 12 years ago at its founding, AirAsia was almost nothing.

AirAsia's driving force is its 50-year-old chief executive, Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes, a former music industry executive who founded Tune Air in 2001 with the idea of making air travel available to the masses at a cheap cost.

A year later, he and his partners bought the money-losing AirAsia line for the token price of a Malaysian ringgit, worth about U.S. 25 cents at the time.

With low-cost fares, its marketing slogan was simple: "Now everyone can fly." But its fleet, such as it was, consisted of just two medium-sized aircraft.

The airline said that within two years Fernandes and his fellow investors repaid $11 million in debt they assumed with the AirAsia purchase. AirAsia started with a staff of 250 people and now employs 15,000.

Fernandes has apologized extensively for Sunday's crash, saying the airline "will not be running away from any of our obligations" to families of the victims, although the extent of any compensation has not been disclosed.

"I apologize profusely for what they are going through," he said. "I am the leader of this company; I take responsibility."