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UPDATE 2-AirAsia looks to slash fleet with fewer leased planes, orders

* Sees fleet of 180 by end-2021 vs 245 now

* U.S. firm has offered to lend up to $1 billion for group’s data

* Remains in talks with Airbus about reducing plane orders (Adds quotes, details about a loan offer)

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Malaysia’s AirAsia Group Bhd is looking to slash dozens of planes from its fleet by returning aircraft to lessors, Group Chief Executive Tony Fernandes said on Thursday.

“We are not going to buy new planes and we are going to return as many as we can. I estimate by the end of next year we’ll be flying 180 planes,” Fernandes told reporters. The group currently has 245 aircraft.

He said the group has is already looking at returning 22 planes from this year.

Fernandes said AirAsia remains in talks with planemaker Airbus about reducing pending orders.

“I don’t see us getting into a position where we want to buy planes for a number of years. And even if we want to buy planes, there will probably be a lot of cheap secondhand planes,” Fernandes said.

The budget carrier, like other airlines, has been hit hard by travel restrictions due to the pandemic.

This week it shut its Japan operations and its long-haul arm AirAsia X Bhd announced plans to restructure $15.3 billion of debt.

AirAsia is also looking to raise around $600 million in capital this year, and has considered fundraising to fund expansion of its digital arm.

Fernandes said the group has recently been approached by a U.S. firm offering to lend that business up to $1 billion.

“I’ve been saying our data is very valuable. An American firm has come forward and said, you know, we would lend to you based on your data,” Fernandes said, declining to elaborate.

The group has long talked about leveraging its large user data base to expand its business.

AirAsia Digital, its newly rebranded digital arm, houses businesses such as travel and lifestyle platform airasia.com which it launched on Thursday.

Its other businesses include fintech unit BigPay, logistics unit Teleport, fast food business Santan and agriculture e-commerce platform OurFarm. (Reporting by Liz Lee, writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Jason Neely and Jan Harvey)

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