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AirAsia Looks to China to Drive Budget Airline’s Recovery

Edward Russell
March 1st, 2023 at 11:21 AM EST

An AirAsia plane at the Jakarta airport

AirAsia parent company Capital A expects China’s reopening to international travelers in January to drive the recovery of its airlines this year.

AirAsia’s four airlines — Malaysia-based AirAsia, Indonesia AirAsia, Philippines AirAsia, and affiliate Thai AirAsia — plan to rapidly ramp up capacity to China from less than 1 percent of 2019 levels in December, according to Diio by Cirium schedules, to 90 percent by August, Capital A said in a fourth-quarter earnings presentation on Wednesday. And, barring any unexpected events or waning travel demand, they will fly 11 percent more capacity to China in November than they did four years earlier. The rapid return to China will support the group’s recovery to roughly 85 percent of 2019 capacity levels this year.

The group said its China capacity plans demonstrate its “confidence and commitment” to the market, with Capital A CEO Tony Fernandes adding that China’s reopening would “further boost” the company’s recovery.

China ended its no-Covid policy, and dropped most border restrictions in January. Since then, airlines from around the world have moved to resume flights that were suspended during the pandemic. All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, KLM, Singapore Airlines, and Swiss Air, to name a few, are all resuming flights in the next few months. And Singapore Airlines even called out China as partially driving the strong travel demand in the market.

The easing of China’s restrictions is especially important for AirAsia. The country was the largest source of international visitors to Thailand, and in the top three for international visitors to Malaysia and the Philippines in 2019, each country’s data show. That makes China a critical market for the budget airline’s success. Flights to and from China made up nearly 17 percent of the four AirAsia airlines’ combined capacity in 2019, Diio data show.

As part of AirAsia’s recovery to China, it plans at least five new routes to the country this year. This includes service to Shenzhen on Indonesia AirAsia, and a new Kuala Lumpur-Guangzhou nonstop on AirAsia.

Even without China, Capital A posted strong results in the fourth quarter as the Asian travel recovery accelerated. Group revenues increased 77 percent from 2019 to 2.4 billion Malaysian ringgit ($537 million); airline revenues were down 34 percent from three years earlier to 2.1 billion Malaysian ringgit. The group posted an operating loss of 198 Malaysian ringgit. Airline unit revenues, measured in revenue per available seat kilometer, were up 134 percent compared to 2019, while unit costs excluding fuel were up 106 percent. Capacity across the group’s four airlines recovered to 57 percent of 2019 levels in the December quarter.

Capital A’s much vaunted AirAsia Super App for travel continued to make gains in the fourth quarter. Revenues increased 41 percent year-over-year to 138 million Malaysian ringgit, and the segment was earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) positive at 100,000 Malaysian ringgit. However, despite the public push, the Super App results reinforce the fact that airlines, not travel technology, remain Capital A’s core business — airline revenues were more than 15-times higher than Super App revenues.

The group’s plan to merge its Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand units into a single holding company, AirAsia Aviation Group, is forecast for completion by March.

AirAsia’s airlines operated 126 of 205 total Airbus A320 and A330 aircraft at the end of December. The group aims to fly 150 aircraft by the end of March, and fully reactivate its fleet by the end of September. AirAsia has 362 A320neo family aircraft on order, and expects its first five A321neos in 2024.

AirAsia’s long-haul brand, AirAsia X, is a separate company and not included in Capital A’s results.

Edward Russell
March 1st, 2023 at 11:21 AM EST

Tags: Asia-Pacific

Photo credit: An AirAsia plane at the Jakarta airport Flickr / Ferry Octavian

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