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Lower oil both blessing and curse for AirAsia

Despite Q4 profit loss, AirAsia CEO still pleased

Lower oil prices usually boost airlines' earnings, but for AirAsia, the decline pushed the carrier into the red as crude's plunge took Malaysia's ringgit with it.

AirAsia swung to a net loss of 428.5 million ringgit for the fourth quarter, its first loss in two years, after its foreign-exchange losses surged to 647.6 million ringgit from 34.9 million in the year-earlier quarter.

The ringgit has plunged nearly 13 percent against the U.S. dollar since mid-2014, trading around levels last seen in 2009, during the Global Financial Crisis. Despite recovering somewhat this month, Brent crude prices have nearly halved since the middle of last year. Petroleum products and liquefied natural gas account for 14 percent of Malaysia's exports.

The blow to the ringgit pushed up the cost of AirAsia's foreign-currency debt and operating costs.

"The loss is only a paper loss from foreign currencies," AirAsia's CEO Tony Fernandes told CNBC Friday, noting balance sheet items need to be revalued and included in earnings.

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That masked a "huge profit," he said, noting revenue rose 16 percent.

AirAsia's fuel cost is effectively around $80 a barrel, compared with $120 in the previous quarter, he said.

But the carrier may not have felt much of a fuel impact in the fourth quarter.

Oscar Siagian | Getty Images

The average fuel price in the period only fell 4 percent on-year, Michael Beer, a transportation analyst at Citigroup, told CNBC Friday. "Fuel consumption actually outpaced capacity growth," he said.

Crash not reflected

What wasn't reflected was a demand impact from the crash of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 en route from Indonesia to Singapore on December 28, Fernandes said, noting it came too late in the quarter. But he added that demand has held up well in the first quarter considering the carrier has done no advertising for the first 50 days of the year.

Analysts are divided on whether negative sentiment from the disaster will hurt its passenger numbers.

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"The weak performance will deteriorate in the first quarter," Mohshin Aziz, an analyst at Maybank-Kim Eng, warned in a note Friday. "The incident has sparked negative sentiments on the group; load factors will be negatively impacted."

But Citigroup's Beer believes that while the Indonesian unit has seen an impact, the operations in other regions, such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand haven't been impacted as much.

"AirAsia generally has accrued pretty substantial brand equity in the region and with its customers," Beer said.

However, tragedy at competitor Malaysian Airlines has hurt the profitability of AirAsia's long haul unit, AirAsia X, which reported earlier this week that its fourth quarter net loss grew to 168.43 million ringgit, in part due to the weak ringgit.

"We've been unfortunate to be dealing with Malaysian Airlines, which unfortunately has too much capacity and has reduced fares to a loss-making situation," Fernandes said. "Unless they refocus and become a profitable airline, we're always going to be burdened by that."

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Last year, one Malaysian Airlines flight disappeared, likely over the Indian Ocean and another was shot down over Ukraine, and its passenger traffic hasn't recovered.

Price wars

Analysts are also concerned about the pricing competition.

"AirAsia's fortunes greatly depend on competitors acting rationally," Maybank-Kim Eng's Aziz said. "We have not seen any tangible changes at MAS and Malindo seems to be very comfortable with its growth plans," he said, adding that he expects AirAsia to face a "challenging" first half. He cut his earnings forecasts and downgraded the stock to a "hold."

--Nyshka Chandran contributed to this article.

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