Philippines AirAsia (Z2, Manila Ninoy Aquino Int'l) plans to launch more direct flights to the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo and is looking into opening a route to Sandakan as part of these ambitions, according to chief executive Ricardo Isla.

The Capital A (ex-AirAsia Group) subsidiary currently operates one route to Malaysia, flying 2x weekly from Manila Ninoy Aquino Int'l to Kota Kinabalu, according to the ch-aviation capacities module. Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah.

"We want to sustain the travel momentum, and for Sabah we are not just looking at beaches but eco-tourism and agrotourism, which are educational. We are looking into the prospect of opening a new destination in Sandakan, which has one of the highest Filipino populations in Sabah, as part of our expansion plans," Isla said during a news conference held in Kota Kinabalu together with the Sabah Tourism Board on July 5.

However, Sandakan is only a domestic airport. Thai AirAsia links it with Kota Kinabalu (23x weekly) and Kuala Lumpur Int'l (16x weekly), and the flag carrier, Malaysia Airlines, with Kuala Lumpur (10x weekly), Lahad Datu (7x weekly), Tawau (7x weekly), and Kota Kinabalu (5x weekly).

"One of the aims under the Sabah Maju Jaya development plan is to ensure Sandakan Airport is upgraded to an international airport. We should explore additional direct routes into the state," Jafry Ariffin, Sabah state's tourism, culture, and environment minister, commented.

He added that Tawau, the second of two airports in Sabah graded to serve international flights after Kota Kinabalu, "might potentially serve as an operational hub too. So whether it's Sandakan or Tawau, we'll let them study the viability," he said in relation to Philippines AirAsia.

The tourism board "is now finalising a collaborative technical campaign" to encourage Filipinos to visit the region, Ariffin said. Isla added that Philippines AirAsia also plans to expand the number of its frequencies to Kota Kinabalu.

According to a report about the event in Malaysia's The Star daily, the carrier is also studying the possibility of opening direct routes to Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan from other airports in the Philippines, such as Davao, Puerto Princesa, and Zamboanga.

Isla told ch-aviation last month that Philippines AirAsia was looking into deploying widebodies for the first time in order to fully capitalise on surging post-pandemic demand for air travel from, to, and within the country.