ANALYSIS: Thai and MAS recoveries aid improved Asian profits

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A solid fourth quarter helped Asia-Pacific carriers to improved collective profits for the full year in 2012.

Collective operating profits for the region's carriers increased to $680 million in the fourth quarter, a $250 million improvement on the same stage last year. Net profits of $600 million for the quarter marked a turnaround on losses of $126 million collectively racked up in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Asia-Pacific carrier results snapshot: 4Q 2012

Airline

Revenues

Op profit/(loss)

Net profit/(loss)

AirAsia $488m $141m $115m
All Nippon Airways $4.6bn $388m $184m
Asiana $1.3bn ($24m) $23m
Jet Airways $782m $70m $16m
Korean Air $2.8bn ($16m) $130m
Malaysia Airlines $1.3bn $14m $17m
Singapore Airlines $3.2bn $107m $117m
TOTAL $14.4bn $680m $602m

Source: Flightglobal Pro, financial results for the fourth quarter ending December 2012, net results include exceptionals

It was a similar story for those carriers reporting 12-month results for the calendar year. Operating profits of just over $1 billion were a little higher than in 2011, but the $1.1 billion net profit marked a $1.5 billion turnaround on 2011.

Asia-Pacific carrier results snapshot: 2012

Airline

Revenues

Operating profit

Net profit

AirAsia $1.7bn $376m $611m
Asiana $5.0bn $118m $45m
Cathay Pacific $12.8bn $231m $145m
Korean Air $11.4bn $288m $229m
Malaysia Airlines $4.5bn ($117m) ($140m)
Singapore Airlines $6.9bn $126m $210m
TOTAL $42.2bn $1.0bn $1.1bn

Source: Flightglobal Pro, financial results for year ending December 2012, net results include exceptionals

While Cathay Pacific's profitability was sharply hit in 2012, for many other carriers last year was an improved picture. In particular both Thai Airways and Malaysia Airlines made progress in pulling back losses.

Despite higher fuel costs and a depressed cargo market, Thai Airways International proved to be very resilient during 2012.

The Star Alliance carrier managed to turn a to a respectable profit of Thai baht (Bt) 6.51bn ($210 million) for 2012.

That result was more impressive in the context of the Bt 10.2 billion loss it recorded 2011. That result was driven down by the political unrest and Bangkok floods that occurred that year. It also had to contend with growing competition from Thai AirAsia, particularly on domestic routes as the low cost carrier expanded its network.

While those events continued to impact the carrier into the start of 2012, the airline says that it was able to "adjust its marketing strategy, especially pricing policy, to stimulate travel demand."

The affect of that, as well as persistently high fuel costs and the depressed cargo market, led the airline to warn that it may not meet its goal of reaching a profit in 2012.

However a stronger and fourth quarter where the it recorded stronger traffic and loads allowed the airline to bring itself back to profit.

The carrier implemented a new portfolio strategy across its flying operations. This saw the rise of new subsidiary Thai Smile, which has a lower cost base and is in the process of taking over most of Thai's domestic and regional international services.

This will leave the main carrier to focus on longhaul international services, but will retain some services between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and Phuket.

That will leave Nok Air, in which Thai has a 49% stake, to compete in the budget end of the market.

Based at Bangkok's Don Mueang airport, Thai has signalled that the low cost carrier will add to its fleet and focus on competing with Thai AirAsia with a network focused on domestic routes and some limited international services.

Nok has signalled that it is planning to expand its fleet and network over the next year. In early March it filed an application to raise up to Bt 3 billion though an initial public offering, most of which is expected to go towards acquiring new aircraft.

While it still sees a number of pressures on the airline, president Sorjak Kasemsuvan said late last year that the airline plans to increase its revenue by 12% this year, and hopes to further improve its margins.

"We never had such a strong growth in Thai's history, but this is not unrealistic," he says.

Malaysia Airlines (MAS), although recording a loss for 2012, has demonstrated a major reversal in its fortunes one year after its chairman said the carrier was "in crisis".

The carrier, which in February joined Oneworld, made a loss of M$433 million ($117 million) for the full year. This though was a strong improvement in the face of the M$2.5 billion it recorded in 2011.

The more positive result came as chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya continued to implement a business plan focused on increasing staff productivity, improving yields and reducing costs.

A key part of that has been its network rationalisation. Over the year, MAS cut services to Buenos Aries, New York and Johannesburg, which were deemed to not be generating sufficient yields for the carrier.

In their place, the carrier has focused on opening up a new route to Kathmandu and adding frequencies Bangkok, Chennai and Taipei.

However, it also shelved plans to start a new premium subsidiary to take over its regional services. That operation was to have begun from the second half of 2012, but was dropped after the airline failed to reach an agreement with its pilots on the new venture.

The airline also continued to focus on renewing its fleet, taking delivery of 18 new aircraft during the year. This included four A380s, which entered service in July and are being used primarily on European services.

Ahmad Jauhari says the M$44 million operating profit recorded in the last quarter of the year was a sign that "our business plan is working."

"We continue to gain traction in multiple initiatives that focus on increasing revenue and managing costs. The results are very encouraging for our team who has worked hard throughout the year", he adds.

While it is set to gain a boost on international services from its membership of Oneworld, MAS will face new competition on the home front this year.

Malindo Airways, which is 49% owned by Indonesia's LionAir, has announced that it will fly from Kuala Lumpur to six destinations within Malaysia from March and has plans to scale up its operations rapidly.

As such, it says that it remains "cautiously optimistic of a challenging operating environment in the future."