Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Air Asia is betting high, take note share holders

By Biz Times
AIRASIA, the region's biggest budget carrier, is making a risky bet.

As soaring fuel prices have forced other airlines to cut back, shed jobs and ground planes, AirAsia is doing the opposite: increasing flights, adding routes and boosting capital investment.
Last month, it even gave away a million free seats (although passengers still had to pay taxes and fuel surcharges). The seven-year-old company is aiming to fill the vacuum as other airlines reduce capacity, betting that more travellers will opt for budget flights amid a global economic downturn.

Analysts say if it survives the industry slump, AirAsia could come out a winner with increased customer loyalty and a strong route network to catch the growth wave when good times return.
"They are reasonably well-positioned for the long run, but there's always a trade-off. It's a long-term decision, which will cause some short-term pain," said Damien Horth, Asia transport analyst at UBS AG in Hong Kong.

Of course, the strategy could also backfire badly.

Last month, AirAsia reported a 95 per cent plunge in its net profit for April-June quarter to RM9.42 million. But the company chalked that up mostly to a RM77 million foreign exchange loss from a weakened ringgit, not weakness in its underlying business.
Average load factor - the percentage of seats taken up in an airplane - dipped to a still relatively strong 76 per cent, from 80 per cent in 2007.

It has a cash reserve of about RM1 billion, but outstanding debts stand at RM5.4 billion, giving it a net debt position of RM4.4 billion. Debts are set to grow as it receives new planes.

Chris Eng, analyst with OSK Securities in Malaysia, said AirAsia's growth prospects may be curbed, while its joint ventures in Thailand and Indonesia are expected to remain in the red.
"It will be challenging but we believe AirAsia can survive," Eng said, citing its efficient regional network and good cost control.