Politics won't temper Lion Air's ambitions

Written by Reuters | Jakarta | Updated: Mar 19 2014, 22:17pm hrs
Rusdi Kirana, chief executive of Indonesia's largest privately run airline Lion Air, is about to embark on a political career with the unlikeliest of partners, but that won't deter him from growing his business at one of the world's most ambitious paces.

In January, Kirana raised some concerns among investors when he unexpectedly joined the small Islamic PKB party, which has since raised eyebrows by picking as its presidential candidate an ageing pop star and polygamist who won some notoriety by once advising fellow believers not to vote for a non-Muslim.

Indonesia is home to the world's largest population of Muslims. Kirana is ethnic Chinese, a minority that has historically dominated Indonesian business, but which has until recently been kept out of mainstream politics.

"I am not going to put this company in danger," he told Reuters in an interview in his soon-to-be vacated headquarters in downtown Jakarta. The company, set up in 2000, is moving outside the capital to a purpose-built complex.

The 50-year-old Kirana captured international attention and some disbelief when he announced record purchases of jets from Boeing Co. and Airbus Group NV as he sought to capitalise on a rise in internal travel by Indonesia's rapidly growing consumer class, as well as to compete regionally and internationally with Southeast Asian rivals like Malaysia's AirAsia Bhd.

Kirana's strategy turned Lion Air into one of the world's fastest-growing airline groups, which earlier this year had more than 500 aircraft on order.

Kirana said he would be staying on as chief executive of the overall Lion Group, but added that he had spent the past four years grooming Lion Air Chief Executive Rudy Lumingkewas. Kirana also said he was training a 22-year-old nephew as a potential future leader, but these changes didn't mean that politics would distract him from the airline.

In fact, Kirana said he was close to ordering even more aircraft for Lion Air.

"We are going to buy more aircraft this year. We are in negotiations. I think by the next few weeks we'll sign it. Then they will say I am crazy again," he said with a laugh, declining to give any details about the purchase.

He also said he aimed to have 1,000 planes operating by 2030 and that he was toying with the idea of building his own airport that would have a private road and a complex for diplomatic staff and families, as well as a concert hall.

"Whether it will work or not, I don't know," he added.

Asked if he would like to start flights to Europe, Kirana's reply was an emphatic "no".

"I have no intention of flying to Europe. Maybe the next generation (of company leaders), but not me," he said, adding the routes were hugely competitive and the market not that big. "I'm better off flying Jakarta to Medan 20 times a day."

Medan, Indonesia's third-biggest city, is about two hours by air from the capital. If Jakarta's airport gives him more slots, he would like to fly that route every half an hour, he said.


Kirana's political ambitions stem from his desire to see a more pluralistic Indonesia, he said.

He opted for the small PKB party, where he is now deputy head, because of its pluralistic bent. The party's support base is Indonesia's largest and mostly moderate Muslim group, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which has up to 40 million members.

"I decided to go to a Muslim party, though I am not Muslim. I just want to show that we minorities can work together with the majority," he said.

Kirana also wants to create a political legacy. He joined NU with a particular mandate to focus on raising the quality of agriculture, a sector that millions of poor Indonesians rely on for their livelihoods.

Opinion polls suggest PKB has no hope of winning the presidency in July and the party is expected to fare only modestly in April's parliamentary elections.

The party's presidential candidate, Rhoma Irama, is the self-styled "king of dangdut", a hugely popular form of music with Arabic and Indian influences. He also admitted to Reuters in an interview last year that he has several wives.

Irama was heavily criticised when he called on Muslims to vote for their own in the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial race where the leading - and, in the end, winning - candidate's running mate was an ethnic-Chinese Christian.

Asked if he was disappointed PKB picked Irama as its candidate, Kirana said he wasn't.

"We just want to show to this country that kind of thinking is wrong. It's totally wrong," he said, referring to Irama's comments on voting for non-Muslims. "I believe that one day he will change. But if we abandon him, then he will be less likely to believe in pluralism."