Proud moment for family of late Sabah tourism iron lady as AirAsia unveils tribute livery

Fernandes (second left) and Kamarudin (right) taking a photo with Charuruks’ children Zudevi (second right) and Zuhun in front of the special tribute livery.

KOTA KINABALU: It was both a proud and an emotional day for the family of the late Datuk Irene Benggon Charuruks after AirAsia unveiled a special livery in tribute to the woman dubbed as the iron lady of Sabah tourism.

The airline’s founder, Tan Sri Tony Fernandes had in a video in February 2021 announced that AirAsia was planning to name one of its aircraft after the former Sabah Tourism Board general manager for 25 years.

Charuruks had passed away earlier the same month due to a sudden illness. She was 70.

On Monday (Dec 4), the livery, which consisted of Charuruks’ name accompanied by a motif from the Murut ethnic group symbolising unity or bringing people together, was finally shown in a simple but meaningful ceremony at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) here.

Delivering a speech on behalf of the family, Zudevi, one of Charuruks three children, said they were pleasantly surprised when Fernandes announced they were naming an aircraft in honour of their late mother.

"It was especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, the hardest time for the travel industry.

"Tan Sri, you did not hesitate to dedicate a plane to our late mother," she said, as she struggled to hold back tears.

"We were very touched. Today, seeing her name on the plane makes it all so real, it is wonderful.

"This is a very fitting tribute to Ma, to keep her memory alive. She loved Sabah so much and here we are today.

"This plane will fly out of Sabah and carry travellers back home, thank you so much Tan Sri and (Capital A executive chairman) Datuk Kamarudin Meranun, you made it happen," Zudevi said, to loud applause.

Her younger brother Zuhun was also present with his family but Zudevi’s twin sister could not attend as she was in Perth while their father Sevee was not well.

Fernandes, chief executive officer (CEO) of Capital A which is AirAsia’s parent company, said Charuruks was the only person who seriously took the news over his and Kamarudin’s decision to acquire the airline in 2021.

"Sabah’s tourism, the jobs we created, the huge amount of people we bring in yearly really starts with Irene noticing us, and I really mean that.

"With her continued support, we established Sabah as a hub and the rest is history.

"So, Irene this special livery is for you, it will be the first plane we ever named and we dedicate it to you," he said.

From having just two planes, Fernandes added, AirAsia was now flying 21 routes including domestic and international destinations, with 331 flights weekly from Sabah, accounting for some 75% of the domestic market.

"And it was all down to your mother," he told Charuruks’ family.

In 2014, he said, AirAsia launched the "Thank You Sabah" livery dedicated to Sabah and its people for their undivided support for the airline’s significant presence in the state.

"We will never forget what Sabah and your mother did for us.

"Sabah is such a special place for AirAsia, where we have grown exponentially flying more than 80 million passengers to and from Sabah since 2002 until November 2023.

"However, no matter how successful we are, we will never forget those people who helped us along the way, and Irene was one of those who truly believed in us," Fernandes said.

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