KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and AirAsia will swap shares in a surprise deal which will see Tan Sri Tony Fernandes becoming the single biggest shareholder.
Khazanah Nasional Bhd, which owns over 69% of MAS, is said to have concluded negotiations with Fernandes to come up with a deal to save the national carrier.
Sources said the deal, which was struck last week after negotiations over the past year, became urgent after MAS' poor showing in the last two quarters.
Fernandes is set to get 20% of MAS equity under the deal that is to be signed next week, with some sources saying it has already received the Government's approval and could be inked by tomorrow.
Industry players expressed surprise at the deal because of past animosity between the management of the two airlines.
Those who were aware of the negotiations were also surprised at the speed at which it was concluded.
At present, Khazanah, a strategic investment company, holds about 69% stake in MAS, and under the deal with Tune Air Sdn Bhd, it will get a similar stake in AirAsia. Fernandes and his co-founder partner Datuk Kamarudin Meranun hold 26.28% in the world's biggest budget airline.
Fernandes declined to comment when asked about the deal.
Insiders in both airlines confirmed that the negotiations concentrated on the synergy such a share swap would bring.
First, there will be rationalising of routes. Between them, the two airlines cover most of the lucrative routes from Asia to Europe.
Second, when they are seen as a single unit, their bargaining power with airports and aircraft manufacturers will double, said a source close to the deal.
He pointed to the recent move to merge SapuraCrest Petroleum andKencana Petro-leum via a share swap as an example for the AirAsia-MAS deal.
Insiders said it was unlikely the two airlines would merge into a single unit, but would operate though separate managements at operational level, while sharing common directors and policies.
Malaysia will get the best of both worlds a premier full-service carrier in MAS and the best budget carrier in AirAsia.
“They have been competing with each other for too long, and it's time to work together because there is more than enough to go around,” said a senior government official.
The official added that the “feud” between the two had been going on for 10 years since Fernandes and others took over the ailing AirAsia fromDRB Hicom.
AirAsia is twice as big as MAS in terms of market capitalisation. MAS is worth about RM5.3bil, while Fernandes' outfit is worth slightly more than RM11bil.
AirAsia stocks closed at RM3.95 per share yesterday while MAS' was at RM1.60.
A news portal, The Malaysian Insider, which broke the story of the deal yesterday, reported that Fernandes would likely appoint Khazanah's executive director of investments Mohd Rashdan Mohd Yusof as chief operating officer after the share swap. Rashdan already sits on the MAS board.
Sources said no decision was made about the position of MAS CEO Tengku Datuk Azmil Zahruddin.
MAS recorded a first quarter net loss of RM242.3mil against a profit of RM310.6mil in the same period last year. Analysts expect the national carrier to make full-year operating losses due to high fuel costs and falling yields.
In contrast, AirAsia recorded a first quarter profit of RM171.9mil for this year and a record RM1.5bil in profits for 2010.
Sources said the merger would also force the two airlines to take stock of their future aircraft purchases if they are to enjoy any synergy.
AirAsia purchased 200 Airbus A320 aircraft earlier this year with an option to buy another 100, while MAS was set to make a decision on the replacement aircraft for its Boeing 747 and 777 fleet, which is more than 20 years old.