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December 29, 2008

Malaysia’s AirAsia X defies downturn, plans route expansion

Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia X said it can weather the storm of a sharply deteriorating global economy and is hiring pilots to expand its routes to China, India, South Korea and Japan, AFP reported.

Chief Executive Azran Osman Rani told AFP that while it was a challenging period for the aviation industry as many countries slip into a recession and carriers go bust, there were "a lot of business opportunities for us."

Bookings for its direct London flight on its leased Airbus 340-300, due to begin March 11, were overwhelming, he said, with 30,000 seats sold.

Demand was great as ticket prices cost about 2,000 ringgit (580 dollars), less than half the price of a regular non-budget flight.

AirAsia X will fly five times a week between the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and Stansted Airport on the outskirts of London.

Azran said AirAsia X was looking to expand its routes in 2009 into northern India including New Delhi, Amritsar and Mumbai, and to Beijing. In 2010 it aims to target South Korea and to Tokyo, Hokkaido in northern Japan and Kyushu in the south.

Azran said it was taking on new staff for its expansion. "We are still hiring pilots and cabin crew despite the tough economic outlook next year," he said.

AirAsia X, which currently flies to Australia's Gold Coast, Perth and Melbourne, and Hangzhou in China, will end the year with about 362 million ringgit in sales.

It aims to expand sales tenfold to one billion dollars by the end of 2010, despite the global slowdown.

Azran said the main challenge amid the uncertain global outlook was "to effectively scale up the scope of our business while keeping the lid on costs."

He said that oil prices, which have sunk sharply in recent months, were not expected to surge in the short and medium term.

The carrier currently has three A330-300 aircraft, one of which is leased. It has placed an order for 25 more by 2013, of which Airbus has delivered two.

Richard Branson's Virgin Group has taken a 20 percent stake in the airline and the British billionaire has vowed to ensure that it turns a profit.

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