AirAsia owner Tony Fernandes has denied any involvement in the Airbus bribery probe that has engulfed the Malaysian airline and turned a spotlight on a Formula 1 team formerly owned by the tycoon, which prompted him to step aside as chief executive.
Mr Fernandes and Kamarudin Meranun, his longtime business partner and executive chairman who also stepped aside from his role, said on Tuesday that they “categorically” denied all allegations of wrongdoing or misconduct.
The company on Monday said the two executives were relinquishing their roles for a period of two months, which could be extended at the board’s discretion. Mr Fernandes and Mr Meranun, who will remain at the airline in advisory roles, said their move was to “facilitate a full and independent inquiry by AirAsia”.
Shares in AirAsia were down more than 11 per cent in Kuala Lumpur late on Tuesday afternoon. They fell more than 10 per cent on Monday, their first day of trading since the UK’s Serious Fraud Office published details of its probe in which individuals associated with Airbus were found to have paid bribes to secure deals with AirAsia and its long-haul arm AirAsia X.
They included a $50m sponsorship for a “sports team” that was jointly owned by two unnamed executives at the Malaysian carrier but which was “legally unrelated to AirAsia and AirAsia X”, according to documents relating to the UK probe. The Malaysian airline group has denied any wrongdoing.
Mr Fernandes and Mr Meranun said that Caterham Formula One, the now-defunct racing team they co-owned, had not been sponsored “improperly” by Airbus, adding: “From start to finish this was a branding exercise and not a venture to make profits”. They said Caterham made no profit while they owned it and was sold for £1 in 2014.
In a statement to the Malaysian stock exchange on Monday, AirAsia said it had set up an independent committee including non-executive board members to lead an inquiry into allegations by UK authorities that airline executives accepted bribes from Airbus.
K Ajith, equity research director at UOB Kay Hian, a Singapore-based brokerage, said the committee was a good move but added that if “the absence of the group CEO is more than two months, some of [AirAsia’s longer-term plans] could go awry”.
However, Mr Ajith said AirAsia’s stock price was unlikely to fall much further, with the company already trading at 0.9 times book value. Airlines tend to trade below book value only when long term-growth or return on equity are at risk, which is not the case for the Malaysian carrier, he added.
The accusations against AirAsia follow Airbus’s admission of bribery and corruption offences across several countries after a global probe that lasted nearly four years and culminated in the European aerospace company agreeing to pay €3.6bn in penalties to regulators in France, the UK and the US.
According to UK investigators, AirAsia and AirAsia X ordered 406 Airbus aircraft between 2005 and 2014, of which 180 were “secured by way of improper payments, and the offer of a further improper payment”. Airbus offered another $55m following the $50m sponsorship for the sports team, but payment was not finalised.
Mr Fernandes and Mr Meranun said UK authorities did not contact them during the Airbus investigation. “This is a clear violation of the fundamental legal principle of fairness and access to justice,” their statement said.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has said it was in touch with authorities in Britain and is also investigating the allegations.