AirAsia’s cheap date won’t always be so easy to please — David Fickling

FEBRUARY 28 — Budget airlines are all about cheap flights—AirAsia Bhd. really brings new meaning to the term.

Its non-fuel costs are the lowest in the entire industry. At 1.73 US cents per available seat kilometre, they’re less than half of Ryanair Holdings Plc’s 3.59 cents and about one-sixth of the amount paid by the big three US carriers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In deciding whether the stock deserves the one-third run-up it’s enjoyed so far this year following annual results Tuesday that fell 4.7 per cent short of estimates, it’s worth asking how that advantage has been achieved—and more to the point, whether it’s sustainable.

Some of AirAsia’s cost edge comes from features that are common to almost all budget carriers. It buys just one type of aircraft—Airbus SE’s A320 series—and does so in vast numbers. One in 13 of the orders for the new version of the A320 are destined for AirAsia.

That has several advantages. As such a crucial customer, AirAsia’s co-founder Tony Fernandes can influence the design of new aircraft so that they’re tailored to suit his needs. When it comes time to pay the bill, he can enjoy a hefty discount off the sticker price, to the extent that almost a fifth of AirAsia’s revenue comes from operating lease income—essentially, renting planes to other airlines in the AirAsia group.

The simplicity of having a single plane means the Malaysian carrier doesn’t need to train and equip separate maintenance and flight crews for a myriad different models. The avoidance of long-haul routes means aircraft can be turned round multiple times in a day, helping them to pay for themselves quicker and reducing the risk that flight crews will have to put up in a costly hotel overnight.

Single-class cabins filled with passengers who pay handsomely for their airport check-in, seat allocation and warmed-through nasi lemak means that complexity is minimised. It also maximises ancillary sales, which make up roughly another fifth of revenue.

That only explains the difference between a full-service and a low-cost carrier, though. How is AirAsia undercutting even the likes of Ryanair?

The biggest reason is infrastructure. Just 15 per cent of AirAsia’s operating costs in 2017 went on “user charges”: things like airport fees, ground operations and air traffic control. At EasyJet Plc, the figure is close to 40 per cent, and even at Ryanair, which obsessively seeks out low-cost regional airports, it’s around 30 per cent.

That makes sense in a southeast Asian market that’s still only just beginning to experience low-cost travel. Airports in relative backwaters like Bintulu, Pontianak or Hat Yai aren’t going to charge what would be demanded in their respective capitals of Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta or Bangkok, so airlines that funnel traffic to those destinations are able to reduce their cost base.

Another advantage is geographic. Relative to Europe and the US, major destinations in Asia are relatively far apart and low-cost carrier routes are concomitantly long. The average AirAsia passenger flew about 1,300 kilometres last year, compared to 1,100 kilometres at EasyJet and 1,200 kilometres at Ryanair.

That matters because taxiing, take-off and landing consume an outsized portion of fuel. Shorter hops where more time is spent climbing and descending are some of the least fuel-efficient flights out there.

At just 0.95 cents per available seat kilometre, AirAsia’s fuel costs are among the lowest in the industry. EasyJet pays about 1.4 cents, while Ryanair’s array of short-haul destinations give it an eye-watering 2.14 cents.

The bigger issue is how long this model can continue. Not all elements of AirAsia’s cost base are cheap. In contrast to the penny-pinching that’s set Ryanair’s staff at the throats of management in recent months, AirAsia’s employee costs are relatively high for a budget carrier, accounting for about 14.4 per cent of revenue.

Non-cash expenditure on that massive fleet doesn’t come cheap, either. Depreciation charges amounted to almost 13 per cent of revenue in the 12 months through September, more than double the median among the 91 airlines for which Bloomberg has data.

Most importantly, there’s the question of how long those ultra-low airport and traffic charges can continue. AirAsia has done magnificently from getting in at the ground level of its region’s discount-travel boom, but at present, its profits depend in large measure on airports resisting the lure of higher rents.

Once Asia’s airports wake up to the cash machine the growth of low-cost aviation represents, the sky on that line-item could really be the limit. — Bloomberg Gadfly

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian. ­

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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