AirAsia CEO tells investors plans up to $300 mln bond issues, jet sales as shares slide

SINGAPORE, June 15 (Reuters) – AirAsia Bhd, Asia’s biggest budget airline, plans to raise funds at loss-making associates by issuing up to $300 million in bonds and may sell planes to help cut group debt, Chief Executive Tony Fernandes said in a letter to investors.

Fernandes, who has steered AirAsia into a billion-dollar business from a two-plane operation in 2002, said the group plans to issue as much as $150 million in convertible bonds at each of its Philippine and Indonesian associates. It may also sell and lease back up to 20 aircraft in the group’s fleet this year, he said in the letter, of which Reuters obtained a copy.

The comments in Fernandes’ letter, sent on Monday, came days after Hong Kong-based firm GMT Research issued a report questioning AirAsia’s accounting practices. In its report, GMT said AirAsia used transactions with associate companies to boost earnings, startling investors and leading the airline’s shares to fall to a five-year intra-day low on June 12.

AirAsia declined to comment on the GMT report.

Though the leader among budget carriers in the world’s fastest-growing aviation market, AirAsia’s business has been squeezed in recent times by competition with regional rivals, such as Malaysia Airlines Bhd, the Jetstar unit of Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd, Indonesia’s Lion Air and subsidiaries of Singapore Airlines Ltd.

"Some of the details here are still work-in-progress but what is written will more or less be reality," Fernandes said in the letter. "Due to the recent movement in our share price, we are sharing the details with you earlier than planned," he said, without making reference to the GMT report.

A spokesman from AirAsia declined to comment on the letter.

AirAsia, the biggest Asian customer of plane maker Airbus , reported a net loss for October-December 2014, and is taking on fewer new aircraft to manage capacity.

It has previously said it plans to list the Philippine and Indonesian associates to raise funds to develop business, but has been hit by weaker demand after a plane operated by its Indonesia affiliate crashed in December, killing all 162 people on board.

In his letter, Fernandes sought to reassure investors that business is improving.

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"We believe that 2015 will be a very good year on the back of a better operating environment and a much more rational market. We have shown you good progress in 1Q15 … We believe in results, not words," Fernandes said.

On Monday, AirAsia’s shares dropped 2.8 percent, after falling a total of as much as 18 percent since GMT published the report on June 10.

"I guess there is probably a bit of scepticism, they are saying ‘We’re going to be bringing in a couple of investors to invest in equity (in associate companies), and also in convertible bonds’, so they can use the money raised to pay back into the company’s balances," said Timothy Ross, an analyst at Credit Suisse.

"But I would ask, who is going to invest in a business that doesn’t make any earnings, just to see their investment going up to the parent company?"

Fernandes said in the letter that AirAsia is looking to take the loss-making associates in Philippines and Indonesia public in 2017, seeking valuations of about $700 million for the Indonesia firm and $600 million for the Philippines business.

"We target to float 20 percent of the shares raising a minimum of $150 million (in each)," Fernandes said.

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