ABU DHABI // Budget flights from Abu Dhabi to Europe, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa could be on the way after the UAE capital emerged as the front-runner to be the Middle East hub for AirAsia X, a popular long-haul budget airline based in Kuala Lumpur. Tony Fernandes, the group chief executive of AirAsia, a shareholder in AirAsia X, named Abu Dhabi as the location for the new base, according to Malaysian media reports, while Abu Dhabi airport executives said they were still awaiting an official letter of intent from the airline.
AirAsia X said it expected to open the base next year: a "virtual hub", meaning it would not base aircraft here but would use the airport to refuel, pick up additional passengers and continue to other destinations. It said it would initially fly between Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpur. It will gradually expand its service from the UAE to include Spain, Turkey, Morocco and the Czech Republic. Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC), which has been aggressively marketing its airports in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain to foreign carriers, welcomed the news.
"We are very happy to hear they made this announcement," said Mohammed al Bulooki, ADAC's vice president for airline marketing and aeronautical revenue. "We've been in discussions for some time now, and we are awaiting their official confirmation." Landing AirAsia X - whose long-haul approach to budget travel makes it unique in the airline industry - would be the biggest coup to date for ADAC, which recently also welcomed Ukraine International Airlines and Abu Dhabi-based start-up outfit Elite Aviation.
Earlier reports had suggested AirAsia X was also considering Dubai, Sharjah and Bahrain for its Middle East base. AirAsia X operates a fleet of five wide-bodied aircraft - Airbus A330s and A340s - and plans to receive an additional 12 A330s by 2011. From its operational base at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, it operates scheduled services to Tianjin and Hangzhou in China; Taipei; London; and three destinations in Australia - Melbourne, Perth and the Gold Coast.
The airline has expanded rapidly since its launch in 2007 and is said to have plans of expanding to India, the US, France, Germany and New Zealand, with additional routes in China. AirAsia X is 48 per cent owned by a joint venture between Mr Fernandes, Malaysian investors and Robert Milton, head of ACE Aviation Holdings Inc, the parent company of Air Canada. Other minority stakes are held by AirAsia, Virgin Group, Manara Consortium of Bahrain and Orix Corporation of Japan.