AirAsia shares close down 8.5% in Malaysia after jet loss

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Shares in AirAsia, Southeast Asia's biggest budget airline, lost almost nine per cent in Kuala Lumpur Monday after one of its jets disappeared with 162 people on board.

But analysts said the impact on the low-cost sector would be limited owing to its popularity.

The firm slumped 12 per cent to RM2.60 at the open but recovered slightly to sit at RM2.69, still down 8.50 per cent, at the close.

It was AirAsia's biggest drop since 2011. The Kuala Lumpur's benchmark index rose 0.23 per cent.

About 102 million AirAsia shares were traded, making it the bourse's most active stock.

The Airbus disappeared en route to Singapore from Surabaya in Indonesia's east Java after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to stormy weather. Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency said it is likely at the bottom of the sea.

A local broker told AFP investors were continuing to sell AirAsia shares. But selling pressure appeared to be abating as they digested the fact that the missing plane belonged to the Malaysian firm's Indonesian unit.

Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation research firm Endau Analytics, said investors and creditors would remain firmly behind AirAsia and its CEO Tony Fernandes, who transformed a floundering carrier into Asia's most successful budget airline.

"The market reaction is quite natural. I am not surprised," he said. "I think investor confidence will return quickly since the airline has a solid business model."

Shukor also said the incident would not dent public enthusiasm for traveling on AirAsia.

"The incident will have very minimal impact on AirAsia's load factor in the next quarter. It will not damage the airline's bottom line," he said.

AirAsia, which has never suffered a fatal accident, said the missing jet last underwent maintenance on November 16.

The plane's disappearance comes at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March with 239 passengers and crew, and in July flight MH17 was shot down over troubled Ukraine with the loss of all 298 on board.

AllianceDBS downgraded AirAsia shares from buy to hold for reasons unrelated to the disappearance, saying its debt burden largely denominated in dollars would be heavier next year as the US unit strengthens against the ringgit.

Analyst Tan Kee Hoong also said the airline may not fully benefit from lower oil prices because management had indicated that some of the savings will be passed back to consumers via lower fuel surcharges.

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