ANALYSIS: AirAsia plans to replicate ‘cash machine’ success at affiliates

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AirAsia's strategic review shows that the airline will focus on building on its existing operations and may open one more base over the next five years.

Overall, the plan has thrown up few surprises. It reveals that AirAsia will focus on growing its newer operations, expanding the profits of its Indonesian and Thai affiliates, and that it is eyeing India as a major growth market.

Aiding that growth is the successful Malaysian operation, which chief executive Tony Fernandes calls a "cash machine" that has enabled the brand's expansion across Southeast Asia.

How long that cash machine can keep functioning remains to be seen, especially with Lion Air's new affiliate carrier, Malindo Air, set to begin operating on domestic Malaysian routes later this year.

Maybank analyst Moshin Aziz believes that Malindo will challenge AirAsia's dominance in the Malaysian market but will not present a long-term headache for the airline.

"When you have a new player, the market reacts and comes out at a new equilibrium," he says. "It's not necessarily bad for the airlines, they just have to find a new way to adapt."

AirAsia says that it will continue to push ahead with its plans for AirAsia Indonesia's initial public offering this year, and will focus on making its Thai and Indonesian affiliates "as profitable as Malaysia".

Both airlines will also grow considerably. Last year, Fernandes said most of the Airbus A320 aircraft it has on order will go to those markets.

Hong Leong Investment Bank analyst Daniel Wong is upbeat about AirAsia's prospects in Indonesia, saying that the airline should be able to build on its international market and to challenge dominant domestic airlines.

"I believe AirAsia should be able to penetrate the domestic market, and take some market share from Lion Air," he says.

However, Aziz believes that AirAsia will struggle to build the same kind of operation in Indonesia as it has in its home market.

"You see the traffic potential, you see the strong demand, but the biggest struggle is keeping costs low and trying to be as efficient as the Malaysian template," he says. "Honestly I don't think it can get there."

He adds that poor infrastructure in Indonesia and the Philippines will make it difficult for AirAsia to implement the utilisation model it has benefited from in Malaysia.

AirAsia's announcement also confirms earlier assertions from Fernandes that they will not pursue a new joint venture in Singapore, and will instead serve the city-state as a virtual hub using its other carriers.

The airline says there is already "an excess of capacity" out of Singapore, and that the best routes to China and India do not fit its operating model.

Maybank's Aziz agrees that there is little benefit for the airline to pursue an operation based in the city-state.

"Singapore is already being served by Tiger and Jetstar Asia," he says. "Not to say that it is impossible to come in as a third force, but it is just going to be a dog-fight scenario."

The other market Fernandes identifies as having the biggest potential is India, once again raising the possibility that the company will look to start a new carrier there.

"India is an exciting market and I have been overwhelmed with the developments of the country recently in terms of promoting air travel," he says. "We will continue to explore opportunities there, but I believe this market offers the most growth potential in terms of travel."

Aziz says that there is certain appeal to India thanks to its large population, but AirAsia will likely have to wait for more reforms - such as lower fuel taxes - before it can start a viable entity there.

"India is made for airlines in one way or another, but the reality is that the government policies have to change," he says.

Wong agrees, saying that "there are timing issues and political issues", but these could be overcome by whatever partner AirAsia chooses to work with in India.

Another positive for India would be the geographical advantage it may offer the AirAsia brand.

"In terms of connectivity, I agree that India presents an opportunity to expand their reach," says Wong, adding that it could give the carrier access to markets in the wider subcontinent, and right up to Central Asia and the Middle East.

Overall, Fernandes is confident that AirAsia will continue to perform strongly, despite the challenges faced by the brand.

"I am very excited for what we have strategically planned for the next five years for AirAsia Group and [we] will continue to beat the odds every year," he says.