When he was six, Tony Fernandes didn't share young boys' dreams of becoming a pilot. 'I told my father that one day I would own my own airline,' he recalls. Four decades later, the Malaysian entrepreneur has become known for pioneering budget travel in Southeast Asia, setting up not only a low-cost airline but also a no-frills hotel chain. Now the AirAsia chief executive is bringing his service to Hong Kong. From May 15, his low-cost airline will operate daily flights to Kuala Lumpur for an average of M$200 (HK$490) excluding taxes and surcharges. That's good news for frequent travellers and holidaymakers. The existing low-cost route between Hong Kong and Malaysia is via Macau. Although costly landing fees mean the Hong Kong service can't compare with Macau on pricing, Fernandes reckons some travellers will pay a bit more for direct access. 'The biggest thrill for me is seeing the [low-cost terminal in Kuala Lumpur] packed with travellers and how we've changed people's lives,' says the 44-year-old. 'Just recently, I was walking around the airport and a lady came up to me and thanked me for making the fares so cheap that she could afford to fly to her hometown in Kota Kinabalu [in Sabah, East Malaysia] more often,' he says. It's typical of Fernandes to wander around the terminal talking to passengers and employees. A believer in accessible management, he takes time to meet his staff and bounce ideas around with them. His office at AirAsia's base in the Kuala Lumpur budget terminal is little bigger than a cubicle, in keeping with its open-plan concept. His staff often walk in for an impromptu chat and the boss is happy to accommodate. Fernandes showed the determination and drive early on that would help him carve his empire. He graduated from the London School of Economics and worked as an auditor for Virgin Records before returning to Kuala Lumpur to make a mark in the music business. At 27, he became the youngest managing director of Warner Music in Malaysia, and was later made vice-president for the Asean region. But the politicking that spilled over from the AOL-Time Warner merger was disheartening and in 2001 he cashed in his share options to realise his childhood dream of creating his own low-cost carrier. He had to secure more capital, but the bigger problem was that he couldn't secure an operating licence. A meeting with then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad brought a solution: the leader offered him a chance to take over an ailing government-owned domestic carrier. Fernandes set up a company with three partners and acquired AirAsia for a nominal M$1 - along with M$40 million of debt. Many didn't think the carrier, which was relaunched in 2002 with just two planes, would survive. 'We were, after all, four guys from the music industry,' he concedes. Despite his lack of experience in the airline industry, he finds the basics in music and aviation are the same. 'At the end of the day business is business,' he says. And managing an airline has some things in common with being a record company executive: 'Pilots and music artistes are the same ... prima donnas.' Having just celebrated its sixth birthday, AirAsia now has a fleet of 70 aircraft, carrying 23 million passengers annually on its 90 routes in Southeast Asia. The rapid growth has surprised even Fernandes. 'I've always had a grand vision for AirAsia, but it has surpassed even my grandest vision,' he says. The budget carrier has already established itself on lucrative mainland routes, with services to Xiamen, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, and plans to add Haikou, Guilin and Tianjin before long. Fernandes took the low-cost model to hotels and finance last year, establishing the no-frills Tune Hotels chain and Tune Money, a Web-based financial services portal. His flair for business may be in the genes. His late mother, Ena, is credited with having introduced the Tupperware franchise to Malaysia. 'My mother was an entrepreneur. She was an amazing woman, she could sell ice to an Eskimo,' he says. A fighting spirit helps, too, when trying to get a fledgling business off the ground. 'I rarely give up and I have a huge propensity for pain. I know I irritate a lot of people, but if I believe in something I don't give up,' says Fernandes. The timing for AirAsia's launch certainly seemed inauspicious. 'It was depressing; we've had to deal with bird flu, Sars, the Singapore government and Malaysia Airlines,' he says, referring to the discount carrier's sometimes fractious relations with the latter two. Fernandes' varied business interests and casual style inevitably gives rise to comparisons with Virgin boss Richard Branson, who has a stake in Fernandes' recently launched long-haul affiliate, AirAsia X. The AirAsia founder takes the comparison in good spirit. 'We both like to have fun,' he says. 'We're not afraid to take on the Goliaths of this world. We're both outspoken and down to earth.' But that's where the similarities end. Fernandes says that, unlike Branson, who enjoys setting up new ventures but leaves the running of his many interests to professional managers, he truly enjoys running AirAsia. 'I have a stake in the other businesses, but I play a more godfather kind of role and leave the day-to-day running to the people in charge. 'I have no aspirations to go on a hot air balloon or fly to the moon,' he says. 'I'm quite happy to be on the ground in KL.' Besides, Fernandes has his hands full running his budget airline. 'The airline business is such that it never sleeps, so I don't really unwind. I'm always thinking of work,' he says. The self-confessed workaholic is tight-lipped about his private life but says he tries to fit in some sports such as squash or soccer. 'I love watching sports,' says the West Ham United supporter. Not surprisingly, the former Warner executive has an impressive music collection of 7,000 CDs. 'Music is a huge part of my life,' he says. Apart from a dislike of country and western, his taste is varied so it's an eclectic collection including bands such as Linkin Park and R&B singer Mary J. Blige. But his first love is the business he's built. Fernandes acknowledges that there will come a time when he'll have to ease out of AirAsia - 'a good leader always leaves with a good succession plan' - and questions about his plans inevitably comes back to his ambitions for the airline. 'In five years, we'll have 175 planes and we'll be carrying 80 million passengers a year.' Fernandes is still the boy who saw his future in the skies.