(adds details on load factors, cash from operations and regions, plus context)
KUALA LUMPUR, May 20 (Reuters) - Budget airline AirAsia Bhd said first-quarter profit rose by 33 percent due to improved passenger numbers, foreign exchange gains and deferred taxes.
Net profit for the three months ended March 31 climbed to 139.7 million ringgit ($43.48 million), from 104.8 million ringgit for the same period last year. Most analysts covering AirAsia do not provide forecasts for quarterly earnings.
The firm, run by entrepreneur Tony Fernandes, is Asia’s biggest budget airline by passenger numbers.
Its seat-load factor - measuring occupancy - improved two percentage points to 81 percent in the first quarter while ancillary income per passenger - income other than from ticket sales such as luggage fees and food - rose by 7 percent.
However, cash from operations declined to 78.8 million ringgit from 240.3 million ringgit last year as the company spent more money investing than it made from operations.
The airline said bookings from Thailand may decline in the second quarter due to the country’s political unrest.
It saw profits slide 55 percent in the last financial year, hit by volatile currency moves and gruelling price competition in its home market from Malindo, an affiliate of Indonesia’s Lion Air and Malaysian Airline System.
Its shares have lost about 28 percent over the past 52 weeks versus a 6 percent rise in the benchmark Malaysian index .
Last week, Malaysian Airlines reported its worst quarterly loss in over two years on lower passenger traffic and cancelled bookings after flight MH370 disappeared in March.
After years of explosive growth, the region’s budget carriers are now facing worries about overcapacity.
Fernandes said last quarter that his carrier would defer seven aircraft deliveries this year and another 12 in 2015. AirAsia has a fleet of about 140 A320 planes, plus 335 on order.
AirAsia’s low-cost Indian joint venture airline won an operating permit this month, paving the way for the carrier to launch services although it has not yet said when they will begin. But the Indian market is a tough one with most carriers failing to make a profit due to high fuel prices, taxes and fees. ($1 = 3.2130 Malaysian Ringgit) (Reporting by Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah, Yantoultra Ngui and Anshuman Daga; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Pravin Char)