AirAsia oh AirAsia

Well written from the ECONOMISTs.

A turbulent patch

Storms batter a South-East Asian success story
Sep 12th 2015 | KUALA LUMPUR 

POSING for photographs in Jakarta last month Tony Fernandes, the well-built boss of AirAsia, hoisted one of his passengers aloft. The uplifted Indonesian, a thirty-something art director returning from a trip to Kuala Lumpur, was the 300-millionth traveller to be carried by Mr Fernandes’s gutsy Malaysian airline since its founding in late 2001. In its short life AirAsia has propelled a breakneck expansion of low-cost air travel in South-East Asia, home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. But after a decade of success it is now flying in thinner air.

AirAsia grew out of a failing state-owned firm which Mr Fernandes, a British-Malaysian entrepreneur with a background in the music business, bought from the Malaysian government for one ringgit (then about $0.26). He and his business partners inherited only two planes and debts of around $11m; today its roughly 200 red-liveried aircraft reach 100 Asian and Australian cities, flying from bases in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and India. In the past five years annual passenger numbers have more than doubled, to around 50m.

That makes AirAsia the busiest Asian airline outside China, and the biggest low-cost carrier in the world after Southwest of the United States, Ryanair (Ireland) and easyJet (Britain). But it has grown faster than those three, and in a poorer and more complex market, notes CAPA, an aviation-research firm. Protectionist policies in many South-East Asian countries mean that AirAsia’s operations outside Malaysia have to be run by joint ventures with local investors. Having to wrangle all those deals has made Mr Fernandes an influential champion of regional integration, which may one day help other border-hopping firms to thrive.

Lately, however, AirAsia has faced strong headwinds. After years of double-digit expansion, its passenger numbers grew by only 6% in the first half of 2015; at the end of 2014 the airline posted its first net quarterly loss since 2008. The turbulence comes partly from years of over-optimism among many South-East Asian airlines, which has led to a glut of seats. A coup in Thailand has depressed tourism there, and political drama in Malaysia is exacerbating a rout on the ringgit (down by about 26% in a year), which is making the firm’s dollar-denominated costs, such as fuel and planes, much more expensive. AirAsia is also battling the Malaysian airport authority, arguing that poor construction of its new hub in Kuala Lumpur has put up the cost of flight operations.

The current problems in Malaysia and Thailand, where the company usually makes good profits, have only heightened worries about its operations elsewhere, which all run at a loss. It entered the Philippines fairly late, by which time competition from other low-cost outfits was fierce. Indian lawmakers have retained costly restrictions on foreign airlines, despite hopes that these would be ditched.

AirAsia’s slick website, an advantage in many places, is less help in Indonesia, where ticket offices and travel agents remain well-used—and where airports’ short operating hours limit landing slots. The crash in December of a flight leaving Surabaya, the country’s second city, hurt the carrier’s reputation for being safer than alternatives. And Indonesian regulators can be fickle: they have recently threatened to ground AirAsiaX—a fragile-looking long-haul carrier listed independently of its sister firm—for failing to meet a local requirement to have at least ten planes in its fleet.

All these concerns came to a head over the summer, when GMT, a research firm, criticised AirAsia’s accounting practices—arguing that deals with its associates, such as aircraft leases, were flattering the head firm’s profits. AirAsia said it has always been transparent; the report revealed “nothing new” to industry analysts, reckons Brendan Sobie of CAPA. But investors still dumped its shares, which have lost about half of their value since June 1st.

A few trends could help AirAsia avoid more turbulence. The full benefits of cheaper oil, which were limited by AirAsia’s hedging this year, may be felt in 2016. Meanwhile the shrinking of Malaysia Airlines, which is regrouping after two big air disasters, could allow prices on some routes to rise. Having appeared distracted by other ventures, such as a London football club and a Formula One motor-racing team, Mr Fernandes promises that AirAsia has his attention. Its Philippine and Indonesian associates are said to be planning to recapitalise by raising at least $200m in bonds.

AirAsia’s outlook now hinges on a restructuring in Indonesia, reckons Tan Kee Hoong of AllianceDBS, an investment bank. Its losses there, 11 years after it began operations, highlight the challenge of imposing a common business model across South-East Asia’s many tempting but fragmented markets. This year AirAsia will probably shrink its short-haul Indonesian fleet and withdraw from some domestic routes, on which it has struggled against LionAir, a home-grown rival.

Even if it sorts itself out, AirAsia may never manage to grab more than a smallish slice of the Indonesian market, by far the region’s largest, reckons Shukor Yusof of Endau Analytics, a consulting firm. That would be a bitter blow to its ambitions. It might also mean that LionAir—which has plans to increase its fleet by two-thirds before 2018—overtakes it as the region’s biggest carrier. AirAsia’s “rocket-ship trajectory” is over, confirms CAPA’s Mr Sobie. But a steadier airline may result.