Vietjet, Vietnam’s biggest private airline, finalized a $6.5 billion agreement on Friday to buy 50 Airbus A321neo jets. The deal was signed in Hanoi by Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, Vietjet founder and CEO, and Christian Scherer, Airbus Chief Commercial Officer.
Both prime ministers of France and Vietnam witnessed the signing. Vietjet had inked a Memorandum of Understanding for the order back in July at the Farnborough International Airshow in the U.K. The purchase brings the budget carrier’s total orders for A320 Family aircraft to 171, 46 of which have so far been delivered.
“The fuel efficient A321neo will enable us to increase capacity and help us to expand the network significantly, especially on international routes,” Nguyen, founder and CEO of the airline, said in a press release.
Nguyen, 48, is one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and the only self-made female billionaire in all of Southeast Asia. She launched the airline in 2011, making a big splash early on with ads featuring bikini-clad flight attendants. The airline was fined $1,000 in 2012 for having a bikini fashion show on one of its domestic flights without a permit from authorities. In response to criticisms, Nguyen said it was her way to bring joy to customers and promote freedom of choice — everybody should be able to wear whatever they want if that makes them happy. Vietjet hosted its most recent on-flight bikini show in January to welcome the national soccer team back from an overseas game, sparking another round of public outrage.
Nguyen took the company public in early 2017, after a planning process of over 800 days, she said in an interview with Forbes Vietnam that year. She debuted on Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires in 2017 shortly after the IPO. Forbes currently estimates her net worth at $2.7 billion.
The airline, which reported $1.8 billion in 2017 revenue and net profit of nearly $200 million, currently offers over 300 flights a day, with 101 domestic and regional routes– almost double the routes it had in early 2017. The average age of all of its fleet is three years. About 30% of Vietjet’s 17 million customers were first-time flyers, Nguyen told Forbes Vietnam, explaining that customers give it a try because of the airline’s lower prices. A round-trip ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City costs about $140, while the same trip on Vietnam Airlines, the national airline, costs $260.
Nguyen studied economics and finance in Soviet Russia in the 1980s. She got the idea of creating a low-cost airline while working as a commodities trader. Nguyen is one of just four Vietnamese billionaires listed by Forbes and is the only female billionaire in the country, where less than 20% of company board members are women, according to a 2017 report by Deloitte.
“I’m still not used to being called a billionaire. Because in almost 30 years of doing business, I’ve never counted how much money I have nor set a goal to become a billionaire,” Nguyen said in the 2017 Forbes Vietnam interview. “I grew up not having to worry about money, so making money was never my goal.” She aims to keep expanding Vietjet’s routes and possibly to list shares overseas in the future, which would make it the first company in Vietnam to do so.