Linh Luong Thai/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Controversial PR stunts helped build this aviation empire.

Cailey Rizzo
April 09, 2017

Five years ago, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao launched Vietnam’s first budget airline.

In an industry that had been dominated by a nationally-owned carrier since 1951, Nguyen wanted to radically change the way that the Vietnamese flew. She predicted that demand for air travel in Vietnam had the potential to increase dramatically. Today her airline, VietJet, operates more than 40 percent of the Vietnamese airline market, Forbes reported.

She has become the only female billionaire in Southeast Asia and one of only two billionaires in Vietnam, according to the same report. The 45-year-old business woman made her first million when she was only 21 by trading fax machines and latex rubber, Bloomberg reported.

“I’ve never sat down and calculated my assets," Ngyuen told Bloomberg last year. "I’m just focused on how to boost the company’s growth, how to increase the average salary for my employees, how to lead the airline to gain more market share and make it number one.”

VietJet made a splash when it launched in 2011 thanks to controversial ads featuring flight attendants in bikinis. It’s now often referred to as the “bikini airline” for their occasional PR stunts featuring flight attendants in swimwear. In 2012, the Vietnamese government fined VietJet $1,000 for having models in bikinis perform a Hawaiian dance onboard a flight without prior authorization.

“We don’t mind people associating the airline with the bikini image,” Nguyen said in the interview with Bloomberg. “If that makes people happy, then we are happy."

VietJet now operates more than 300 daily flights and has 45 jets in its fleet. Over the past few years, the airline has placed orders for 200 planes from Boeing and Airbus, totaling over $23 billion, according to the same Forbes report.

Nguyen said that she hopes to expand the airline into an international venture.

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