Ever since an AirAsia Bhd. flight went missing early Sunday with 162 people on board, Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes has kept up a steady stream of tweets, seeking to calm anxious families and maintain a sense of optimism amid the biggest challenge the budget airline has ever faced.

“Keeping positive and staying strong,” Fernandes, 50, tweeted Monday, a day after flight 8501 disappeared en route from Surabaya, Indonesia to Singapore. “My heart bleeds for all the relatives of my crew and our passangers (sic). Nothing is more important to us.”

An international team resumed the search Monday in the waters off Borneo after an all-day effort Sunday proved fruitless. The head of the Indonesian agency leading the search said Monday the assumption is that the jet is “at the bottom of the sea.”

The AirAsia incident is eerily reminiscent of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which went missing in March and has never been found. But even as his airline grapples with what appears to be its first major crash, Fernandes is projecting a hands-on, positive image, shuttling back and forth between Surabaya and Jakarta.

“I as your group ceo will be there through these hard times,” he tweeted Sunday evening. “We will go through this terrible ordeal together.”

Common Touch

That aura of approachability is needed at a pivotal moment for the airline Fernandes bought for a symbolic one Malaysian ringgit (29 cents) in 2001, according to Con Korfiatis, the founding chief executive of rival budget carrier Jetstar Asia.

Fernandes, who owns England’s Queens Park Rangers soccer club, prefers casual dress to suits and is usually seen wearing a red AirAsia baseball cap. In his early days running the airline Fernandes would even pitch in with the baggage handlers, Korfiatis said.

“He’s never been a guy to sit in an ivory tower in a $5,000 dollar suit — he’s a man of the people,” Korfiatis, who’s now a partner with executive recruitment company Heidrick & Struggles International Inc., said by phone from Singapore today. “What AirAsia is today is a reflection of him and his tenacity and spirit.”

Fernandes once worked as financial controller for Richard Branson’s Virgin Records in London, and has brought the British billionaire’s flamboyance and media-savvy to a region that once was thought to be unsuitable for budget aviation.

Flights for Asia’s Masses

A former British boarding-school pupil, Fernandes has parlayed the two planes and 40 million ringgit of debt he inherited when he bought AirAsia into Southeast Asia’s second- largest carrier by passenger traffic.

“It’s been the Ryanair or Southwest of Asia,” said Korfiatis, referring to the Irish and U.S. discount carriers that earlier transformed their regions’ airline industries. “People were saying ‘low-cost won’t work in Asia,’ and Tony basically thumbed his nose at them.”

Like Branson, whose Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. fought for a position on routes between the U.K. and U.S. soon after the privatization of British Airways Plc, Fernandes has built AirAsia against a backdrop of dominant state-owned airlines.

What Fernandes learned while working for Virgin “allowed him to flourish and grow, and he brought it back to his roots in Asia,” Korfiatis said.

Fernandes remain friends with his former boss: Branson last year donned lipstick and heels to work a route as a female flight attendant on AirAsia after losing a bet about their respective Formula One motor-racing teams, Marussia and Lotus.

Fernandes’ intuition about Asia’s appetite for budget flights has paid off: AirAsia Bhd. and its long-haul affiliate AirAsia X Bhd. flew a combined 63.92 billion passenger kilometers during 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That gave it more traffic than Japan Airlines Co. or Thai Airways International PCL, and nearly 25 percent more than state-owned rival Malaysian Airline System Bhd.

Social Media Presence

Fernandes’ prominent public persona should serve him well during this crisis, Laurel Papworth, a social media consultant, said by phone from Sydney. Executives who take a lower profile might find it harder to be the public face of their companies in difficult times, she said.

“The biggest fail for a CEO is if the only time they show up is when their company is in trouble,” Papworth said. “An investment in a relationship needs to occur before the relationship is needed.”

According to a September report by CEO.com, about 68 percent of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies have no presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, or Instagram. Fernandes, by contrast, has racked up nearly 13,000 tweets and images posted to Instagram, including a topless self-portrait and the cover of documents for the purchase of 50 Airbus Group NV jets.

On Sunday, Fernandes took to social media just minutes after reports surfaced that the aircraft had vanished, tweeting a link to an AirAsia statement on the missing jet.

“Thank you for all your thoughts,” Fernandes posted about an hour later. “We must stay strong.”

Managing tragedies like this requires extraordinary tact and sensitivity, consultant Papworth said, and Fernandes’ ease with social networks limits the risk of a misplaced or tone-deaf comment.

Fernandes is “handling it very well: he’s doing it with a human touch, which is his persona anyway” Korfiatis said. “What it needs right now is just him being genuine.”

To contact the reporter on this story: David Fickling in Sydney at dfickling@bloomberg.net. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at anandk@bloomberg.net. 

Photo Credit: AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes' Twitter account. Twitter