AirAsia chief to focus on regional expansion

AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes on Monday said he was handing over his role as head of Malaysia operations to shift focus to oversee the budget carrier's regional expansion.

Fernandes spoke as he introduced his replacement as CEO of AirAsia's Malaysia operations, part of a change that will see him move to Jakarta to oversee the AirAsia family's fast-growing core Asian market.

In a news conference at AirAsia's headquarters outside the capital Kuala Lumpur, Fernandes announced he would hand over responsibility for managing AirAsia's Malaysia-based operation to the company's finance chief, Aireen Omar.

Fernandes had run those operations since the former music executive plucked the ailing airline from bankruptcy a decade ago and steered it into an industry success story at a time when many other airlines had struggled.

The 38-year-old Aireen, whom Fernandes described as "tough", said she would focus on keeping operational costs down and opening up new markets to prepare the carrier for the Southeast Asian open-sky policy in 2015.

The policy will reduce barriers on regional airlines expanding their route networks to other countries and is expected to intensify competition.

Fernandes also confirmed an earlier company announcement that he would move to Jakarta to oversee all group operations.

He added that AirAsia's Indonesian unit would launch an IPO in the first quarter of 2013.

"We are not abandoning Malaysia. Our homes are here. We do not want to overshadow Aireen. We want a good succession plan and to put our time to develop our regional affiliates," he said.

He added the world economic slowdown weighing on most businesses is a growth opportunity for his cheap, no-frills carrier.

"Definitely, AirAsia will always benefit from a slowdown. We are always growing when things are tougher," Fernandes, whose maverick style has made him a rising star in the industry, told reporters.

"We are now the beneficiaries of a slowdown. We are always growing when there is a slowdown."

Despite recently abandoning unprofitable long-haul routes to Europe, the airline group's prospects in Asia are hailed by analysts as bright, and it is refocusing on shoring up its presence in the region against a host of new competitors.

It has set up subsidiary budget carriers in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, and is planning one that will serve the Japanese market.

Besides AirAsia and the other short-haul subsidiaries, the airline group also includes AirAsia X, which operates longer-haul routes of about three hours' flying time or more.

Last month, AirAsia posted a 4.0 percent increase in first-quarter net profit to 168.0 million ringgit ($53.4 million) on record quarterly revenue of 1.17 billion ringgit.

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