AirAsia to return to Japan 'like Caesar': CEO

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
AirAsia: We will make a comeback in Japan

AirAsia is getting closer to finding a partner for a Japan comeback after Asia's largest budget carrier pulled out of its money-losing joint venture there last year, CEO Tony Fernandes told CNBC.

The carrier is "a couple of months away" from finding a partner for its return to Japan, he said Thursday. "I had a very good presentation from the team. We're confident."

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Last year, AirAsia sold its stake in its Japanese budget airline joint venture with ANA Holdings, ending a less than two-year-old money-losing tie-up. The carrier, which was 67 percent-owned by ANA, had flown to five domestic destinations and two in South Korea.

But AirAsia certainly isn't taking a once-bitten, twice-shy approach to Japan.

"We shall return like Caesar," Fernandes said. "This could be -- and I still believe it, it's a strong statement -- probably the most profitable company within AirAsia," he said.

Tony Fernandes, chief executive officer of AirAsia
Matthew Lloyd | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"Everyone wants to come to Japan," Fernandes said, adding "We're going to make affordable and Japanese love to travel so I'm very bullish," he said.

However, after the ANA tie-up floundered on disagreements over issues ranging from where it should be based to costs to the website's language, the Malaysia-based carrier is looking to change its game-plan this time around.

"We might find partners who are more like-minded," Fernandes said. "We've always worked as one captain of the ship. When you have two airlines, there are two views on how to do things."

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But while Fernandes is positive on progress in re-entering the Japanese market, he's more reserved on efforts to enter India.

"People have been very aggressive in trying to stop us," he said. "Yesterday, it was announced that the elections should slow it down." Voting in India's election is set to end on May 12.

At one point, AirAsia had hoped to begin flights by March of this year, but indications are that may be pushed back to October.

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AirAsia India – which is 49 percent-owned by AirAsia and 30 percent-owned by Indian conglomerate Tata Sons – has seen its entry opposed by many of India's domestic carriers as well as industry lobbying group the Federation of Indian Airlines.

In January, the aviation regulator even invoked, for the first time, a 1930s-era law seeking public feedback on the application to begin services. The country's airline industry is burdened by heavy debt loads and earnings losses.

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"The aviation business is a strange business in that it's so nationalistic and it's so regulated," Fernandes said, but added he still expects the Indian venture will proceed.

"We're the first foreign airline to actually get as far as we have," in India's regulatory process, he said. "I think we will be the standard bearer of other airlines coming in, because once we open it up it'll be much easier."

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter

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