SEPANG, MALAYSIA : Despite its extensive Southeast Asia coverage and a foray into China and India, the budget airline group AirAsia is strenuously expanding its network in Asean.
Airasia’s A320 with the Asean livery is seen at Kuala Lumpur international airport.
"I think we just scratched the surface. I think there are 100 (more) places (in Asean) where to grow," AirAsia group chief executive Tony Fernandes said on Saturday.
With a population of 600 million in the 10 Asean nations and their huge economic development, the region offers AirAsia "huge" opportunities to expand its network by introducing new routes and boosting frequencies on existing routes, the Malaysian executive noted.
"Asean is twice the size of America (in terms of population) and the market is huge, there is no reason why AirAsia or other airlines in this region can't be 500-600 planes."
AirAsia and its sister carriers in Thailand and Indonesia have connected all the capital cities of Asean and provided flights to towns hosting the region's heritage sites, beaches, environmental landmarks and entertainment centres.
The no-frills airline group operates 130 routes, flying to more than 65 destinations, with over 400 flights daily being served by 84 jetliners.
Mr Fernandes underscored Asean as the airline's core market whose business potential has been overlooked by many investors and companies when they think of investing in Asia.
"It's a constant battle to say that AirAsia's growth and success really came out of Asean and that will be the majority of our future growth," he added.
The bulk of AirAsia's passengers, at 24 million a year, are indeed originating from Asean.
Many of the seven-year-old carrier group's recent strategies are geared towards developing secondary routes, linking cities or towns in one Asean state to neighbouring country which had not been in the flight plans.
Mr Fernandes pointed out that AirAsia has introduced 42 new routes which were non-existent in Asean's 42-year history - routes such as Kuala Lumpur-Bandung and Kuala Lumpur-Aceh.
AirAsia now has eight regional hubs in three Asean countries - Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Kota Kinabalu and Johor Bahru; Indonesia in Jakarta, Bali and Bandung; and Thailand in Bangkok. Phuket will soon be added.
AirAsia, Asia's largest budget airline group and the fifth largest airline in Asia in terms of passenger numbers, is aligned itself more with Asean, by portraying itself as an "Asean" airline rather than an airline born out of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
To convey such a message, it has an Airbus A320 aircraft repainted in Asean livery with a large Asean emblem of 10 paddy stalks and a "Truly ASEAN" in big bold font featuring on both sides the fuselage.
On Saturday, AirAsia flew the 180-seat jet with Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, diplomats, the airline's management, executives and media representatives from across Asean on board on a "three cities in one day" celebration to mark the 42nd Asean Day.
But the chartered flight (AK9959) with more than 100 guests, starting from Jakarta, with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur and ending in Bangkok, aimed more to proclaim its association and commitment to Asean.
AirAsia said the specially liveried aircraft will also act as a promotional tool to project Asean to the world.
"With our extensive network, millions of people fly with us each year. By waving the Asean flag in all the places we go, AirAsia will be doing its part to promote the region," Mr Fernandes said.
Tassapon Bijleveld, chief executive of Thai AirAsia, told the Bangkok Post that the airline group will continue to strengthen its "Asean" brand visual with a series of image building by advertisement and activities.
Thai AirAsia's 18th aircraft, the brand-new A320 due to join the fleet in December, will come with the Asean livery.