KOTA KINABALU: AirAsia Group chief executive officer Tan Sri Tony Fernandes will be naming one of its aircraft "Irene" in honor of Sabah's tourism icon Datuk Irene Benggon Charuruks who passed away on Monday (Feb 15).
Fernandes, who described Irene as a remarkable and very special woman, said it was the first time the airline would give a name of a person to one of its planes.
He disclosed this in a video posted on a "tribute board" for Irene created by the family as she was buried at Kg Dandas cemetery at Kg Pulutan in Menggatal here Friday (Feb 19).
Irene, who led the fledgling Sabah Tourism Board as its general manager for 25 years before her retirement in 2016, came to be known as the “Iron Lady” of tourism who put Sabah on a list of "must visit" nationally, regionally and internationally.
"Sabah is an incredibly special place for me and for all AirAsia All Stars. We have a plane dedicated to Irene," he said, adding that the airline would never forget the people who helped them along the way.
"So Irene this is for you, we're going to name a plane after you, it will be the first plane we ever named and we dedicated it to you, so look for it up when its flying in the skies especially over Sabah when you look down us. Take care, rest in peace, lots of love, Tony," he said.
In his three-minute-25-second clip, Fernandes said Irene was serious about his venture into the airline business even before he and co-founder Datuk Kamarudin Meranun and Datuk Pahamin Rejab bought the airline in 2001.
According to Fernandes, she called him up and said she wanted a flyover from Sabah to meet him in Kuala Lumpur as she wanted to support AirAsia.
"That was visionary (of Irene). I don't think anyone believed in Tony Fernandes and Datuk Kamarudin in doing anything with AirAsia.
"She came with four hoteliers and divers. She came to sell Sabah to an airline that didn't exist. A music guy who didn't know whether he will succeed in the airline business. But she believed (in us). She'd had the foresight, and she had passion for Sabah," Fernandes said in his tribute.
Fernandes said that AirAsia's survival in a lot of ways was because of Sabah's tourist market especially with the opening of Tawau and Sandakan as major tourist destinations for the state.
"Irene and I have always had a special relationship. We fought once in a while because she helped other airlines, and (I) get very jealous," said Tony in a light-hearted tone.