AirAsia was established in 1994 and began operations on 18 November 1996. It was founded by a government-owned conglomerate, DRB-Hicom. On 2 December 2001, the heavily-indebted airline was bought by former Time Warner executive Tony Fernandes’ company Tune Air Sdn Bhd for the token sum of one ringgit (about USD 0.26 at the time) with USD 11 million (MYR 40 million) worth of debts. Fernandes turned the company around, producing a profit in 2002 and launching new routes from its hub in Kuala Lumpur, undercutting former monopoly operator Malaysia Airlines with promotional fares as low as MYR 1 (US$0.27). In 2003, AirAsia opened a second hub at Senai International Airport in Johor Bahru near Singapore and launched its first international flight to Bangkok.
AirAsia has since started a Thai affiliate, added Singapore to the destination list, and started flights to Indonesia. Flights to Macau began in June 2004, and flights to mainland China (Xiamen) and the Philippines (Manila) in April 2005. Flights to Vietnam and Cambodia followed in 2005 and to Brunei and Myanmar in 2006, the latter by Thai AirAsia. In August 2006, AirAsia took over Malaysia Airlines’s Rural Air Service routes in Sabah and Sarawak, operating under the FlyAsianXpress brand. The routes were returned to MASwings a year later, citing commercial reasons.
At the end of 2006, Fernandes unveiled a five-year plan to further enhance AirAsia’s presence in Asia. Under the plan, AirAsia proposed enhancing its route network by connecting all of its existing destinations throughout the region and expanding further into Vietnam, Indonesia, Southern China (Kunming, Xiamen, Shenzhen) and India. Through its sister companies, Thai AirAsia and Indonesia AirAsia, the plan called for a focus on developing its hub in Bangkok and Jakarta. With increased frequency and the addition of new routes, AirAsia increased passenger volume to 13.9 million in its 2007 fiscal year.
During 2007, passengers from “The Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group” protested against the airline over its refusal to fly passengers who were completely immobile. They claimed that people with disabilities were discriminated against when booking tickets online; the CEO of the airline said it did not turn away wheelchair-bound passengers.
On 27 September 2008, the company announced 106 new routes to be added to its list of 60. The number of old routes discontinued has not been disclosed.
In August 2011, AirAsia agreed to form an alliance with Malaysia Airlines by means of a share swap. The alliance was struck down by the Malaysian government, in effect voiding the agreement of both airlines.
By early 2013, AirAsia’s profits increased by 168% on a year-over-year basis compared to the same period in 2012. For the quarter ending 31 December 2012, the airline’s net profit stood at 350.65 million ringgit (US$114.08 million). Despite a 1% rise in the average fuel price, the airline recorded profits of 1.88 billion ringgit for its full 2012 fiscal year.
In February 2013, AirAsia submitted an application to the Indian Foreign Investment Promotion Board, through its investment arm, AirAsia Investment Limited, to seek approval for commencing its operations in India. AirAsia asked to take a 49% stake in the Indian sister airline, which was the maximum allowed by the Indian government at that time. AirAsia committed to invest up to US$50 million in the new airline. Operations would begin in Chennai, expanding its network throughout South India, where AirAsia already operates flights from Malaysia and Thailand.