Malaysia Airlines: Recovering from Tragedy

It is safe to say that 2014 has not been a good year for Malaysia Airlines. A once proud airline is now on the verge of collapse. But just how can it recover from the tragedies of MH370 and MH17?

Onboard Malaysia Airlines landing at Kuala Lumpur Airport with the famous palm trees on approach
Onboard Malaysia Airlines landing in Kuala Lumpur with the famous palm trees on approach

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I rolled my eyes when I saw the recent advertising campaign from Malaysia Airlines, which asked passengers about which destinations were on their bucket list. Talk about a PR disaster! In English lexicon, a bucket list is so-called because you list everything you want to do before you “kick the bucket” (i.e. before you die). So are Malaysia Airlines really saying that they will fly you to your destinations before you die? Surely not?! An airline that has lost 537 passengers through tragedy in the current year should not be basing an advertising campaign on “bucket lists”! It’s almost laughable, but that would be too disrespectful to the poor victims. Now, while I am open to the suggestion that Malaysia Airlines’ PR gurus may not have a perfect knowledge of the English language and its hidden meanings, you can understand that this is nevertheless another example of how MH needs to change with the times and focus their energy on a rebranding exercise.

It is said that in 2014, Malaysia Airlines will be looking for a $200b bailout to help it restructure post-tragedy for the years ahead, and unfortunately the company is also looking to get rid of 6000 jobs to cut back on labour costs. There are plans, however, to keep the Malaysia Airlines name and brand, which I think is a mistake. I cannot believe for one moment that the airline will ever regain its foothold in the regional or intercontinental markets without a change of name, as the brand is now too synonymous with the tragedies of MH370 and MH17. Malaysia Airlines, of course, has been known as a few things in its history, so I am not sure why they wouldn’t be partial to changing the name again, but we will see.

It is also claimed that in 2014 over 200 flight attendants from Malaysia Airlines have resigned, and this is a much higher number than the aviation industry average. The staff have apparently either been left demoralised with the low passenger numbers since the tragedies of 2014, or even spooked themselves by these tragedies happening to their airline (like a “what if my plane is next?” mentality).

mh17crash

Although I didn’t know anyone personally on the ill-fated flights of MH370 or MH17, as an aviation enthusiast it was heart-wrenching to learn about these tragedies. In particular, the strange disappearance of MH370 in March really caught my eye, and there were many conspiracy theories being bandied about as to why the place literally vanished. Even to this day, the aircraft has not been found; not even a single piece of wreckage or debris. MH17 was of course shot down by a ballistic missile in the Ukraine by Russian rebels. It is believed that while only shrapnel from the airborne explosion hit the aircraft, it still hit it hard enough to damage the fuselage and the plane broke up mid-air. Nearly 300 unfortunate souls fell to their doom, with some passengers even ending up miles from the actual crash site. May they all rest in peace.

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In terms of amending the routes of Malaysia Airlines post-2014, I would suggest the following:

Two areas of the world where MH need to cut back these days are Europe and Far East Asia. Although the extremely lucrative slots at London Heathrow should not be gotten rid of, virtually every other European destination needs to be axed. MH currently serve London Heathrow with 2 daily A380s, which are the longest flights on their route network. Possibly one of these needs to be cancelled and the slot leased to another airline for the foreseeable future, but MH MUST keep at least one of their LHR slots. It is their flagship route and flown by the A380, their flagship aircraft. I do not know how the other A380 should be utilised, but possibly a daily flight to Sydney may be a good idea.

Malaysia Airlines are no longer a big enough airline to warrant serving destinations in Europe such as Istanbul or Frankfurt, and alas probably not even Paris, either. There, I said it. But what they can do is maximise their One World alliance membership. This gives it great freedom to route share with other members of the same alliance. I am thinking specifically with Qatar Airways, which can connect MH passengers all over Europe, the Middle-East and even Africa. To achieve this, MH needs to cut its Dubai route (tough), and replace it with Doha. So now MH flies from Kuala Lumpur to Doha where it feeds its One World partner Qatar Airways with traffic to the rest of the “western world”. There is no need to fly to the home of Emirates anymore; Doha makes much more sense.

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On the same line of thought, Malaysia Airlines now needs to axe East Asian destinations, where already it rates poorly due to the influx of budget airlines in the region, such as Air Asia and Scoot. Destinations such as Taipei, Seoul, Osaka, and all Mainland Chinese airports (yes, even Beijing) need to go immediately. I suppose a ‘flagship’ East Asian route to Tokyo can remain – but only if the numbers crunch properly. Now, one destination I have not mentioned yet is Hong Kong, the home of Cathay Pacific. Cathay Pacific are a member of One World, just like Malaysia Airlines, so it should come as no surprise to realise that MH needs to fly perhaps even 4x daily to HKG and feed Cathay Pacific so that the MH passengers can continue their East Asian adventures (or even flights to the USA and Canada) on Cathay Pacific metal. This way, the likes of Taipei, Seoul, Shanghai, Guangzhou can be served, but MH will not need to fly there itself. It will be done through One World alliance membership, and that is precisely what airline alliances are meant to be there for!

For an airline that is effectively downscaling in size, the surplus aircraft will need to be sold or leased to other airline who are looking for “bargain buys”. I envisage a time when Malaysia Airlines operate only narrowbody B737 aircraft on a few regional routes to Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and perhaps Vietnam, and use the larger A330 on important feeder flights to Doha and to most destinations in Australia. Firefly, the domestic and low budget subsidiary of MH, can continue to serve destinations within Malaysia, such as Penang and Kuching, and compete on fare structure with Air Asia (which will not be easy). The A380 “Super Jumbo” can continue its deployment on flagship routes to London, Sydney and Tokyo, although the 6 MH currently have in its fleet may be slightly troublesome. They can sell at least one of them, because those aircraft are too big for Malaysia Airlines these days; they cannot fill them regularly enough to be profitable.

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There are certainly very interesting times ahead for Malaysia Airlines and I hope it is able to pull through these difficult times. I also wish the resigning cabin crew well in finding other jobs in the aviation industry, or finding a new career altogether.

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12 thoughts on “Malaysia Airlines: Recovering from Tragedy

  1. Excellent article Lee, very detailed and well analysed. I agree that MH need to rebrand, They really need some innovative & fresh thinking marketing strategy – something which acknowledges the tragedies & how that forms the basis of a new company going forwards. Of course this has not happened, the new marketing strategy totally misses the mark, and is just more of the same. It’s centred around the idea of the bucket list, couldn’t be more inappropriate imo !
    Your suggestion of the Qatar tie up is also very sensible. When the new airport is finished in Doha I think that Doha will become a much more attractive option for transit through the middle east. Dubai is now very crowded, and the transfer experience is not exactly calming. I had a long transfer in Qatar Business Class lounge at Doha airport a couple of years ago, it was absolutely wonderful, I was sad to leave !

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    1. I think the new Doha airport is now open, although I haven’t experienced it in all its glory yet (and certainly not a business class lounge there :P). And I agree that Dubai Airport can be somewhat busy and cramped. Let’s hope MH can complete the tie up with Qatar Airways.

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  2. Lee, I’m from Malaysia. The news here said that Khazanah, the majority shareholder, has two plans for Malaysia Airlines. Firstly, make Malaysia Airlines as a gateway to Malaysia so there will be even more destinations. It’s something like the UAE. The UAE wants to attract foreign people to visit their country so their main gateway to their country is either Emirates or Etihad. The second option is something like you said. In my opinion, Malaysia Airlines got to follow the footsteps of Emirates. As Malaysia is growing, it attracts even more foreign worker into the country so MAS must have a share in that.

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    1. Thanks for the information Ilham! 🙂 It will be difficult for MAS to replicate what Emirates or Etihad can do, but I think certainly MAS are in a good position to take advantage of the INDIA-AUSTRALIA traffic and route them through KUL.

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      1. Yah, India is the right place for MAS to be in. Indians are getting richer. Well, they got to be fast! I think the right thing for MAS to do is to bring the emerging countries like you said to the world. Which other place do you suggest for MAS to enter?

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        1. I don’t think MAS should enter anywhere else. I think they should actually cancel other destinations, just leave Australia, India, London, Doha, Hong Kong, and Tokyo as main routes, and the rest of the south east Asia can be serviced on their narrowbody aircraft.

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      2. The main target for MAS is to serve only continents, Asia, Oceania and Europe. It’s focusing on that sector to take a big chunk of passengers in the Kangaroo Route. They may have a return to Africa and Americas but not in the near future. MAS is currently focusing to help Oneworld have more destinations in those continents. For the upcoming years,it will be a more frequency target and more destinations in Asia, Europe and Oceania modal. 🙂

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  3. Pretty bad PR indeed… bucketlist is not a good idea at the moment! I feel very sorry for the company, in Brazil our biggest airline, TAM also have been through a lot a few years ago, and they did a very good job on changing the situation, I hope Malaysia Airlines can too.

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