After a catastrophic 2014, the renaissance of Malaysia Airlines is underway, as Mike Yardley explored.
In the wake of the twin tragedies to monster Malaysia Airlines, the carrier has essentially been battling for its commercial survival. The devastating loss of 537 lives from the dual horrors of MH370 and MH17 critically tarnished the airline’s viability.
Earlier this year, a new legal entity was formed to operate Malaysia Airlines, which is now solely owned by the government. To date, only a wing part, a flaperon, that washed up on Reunion Island in July has been confirmed as being from MH370. Next week, the Dutch Safety Board will release its official report into the downing of MH17 after an exhaustive investigation.
Last week, a group of international travel media colleagues and I were whisked to Kuala Lumpur, to get an access all areas tour of the airline’s operations, meet the senior staff and get a feel for where the airline is heading.
Appointed in May, the airline’s new chief executive, Christoph Mueller, took the opportunity to take a shot at “international aviation bureaucracy” for failing to plug a critical hole that the MH370 disaster so shockingly exposed.
He has called for a third transponder to be installed in close proximity to the Flight Data Recorder in the plane’s tail, which would enable aircraft to be tracked in a cost-effective manner.
Unlike the other two transponders, currently installed in aircraft, his suggested third transponder would be inaccessible to crew and couldn’t be manually turned off. Mueller formally advocated for this technical solution at the recent IATA conference in Miami. As he told us on Thursday, “Unfortunately the technology providers have smelled a big opportunity and want to make it a huge thing.”
The Swiss Army Knife
The savvy Swiss airline executive, who clearly relishes a challenge, is the first non-Malaysian to head up the national carrier and his reputation certainly precedes him. He’s like the Swiss Army knife of aviation, an archetypal Mr Fix It. In fact Christoph Mueller’s long-standing sobriquet is “The Terminator”, because he’s cultivated a reputation for being a ruthless realist with floundering airlines and slashing thousands of jobs. He rejuvenated Lufthansa and rehabilitated Aer Lingus from the brink of collapse. In the case of Malaysia, the workforce has been cut from 20,000 to 13,000.
As part of a five year recovery plan, the carrier moved swiftly to adjust network capacity to suit demand. Across the Tasman, a variety of services have been scaled back, while the Brisbane service has been axed outright. The good news for Kiwis is that the Auckland service to KL, which has been flying since 1989, is rock solid. Mueller says it remains “very strong and successful”.
Unlike the Aussie ports, Malaysia Airlines faces no competition on the Auckland run. Anecdotally, I noticed both sectors of my return flight to KL were fully booked. As much as Kiwis are resilient travellers, the lure of such sharply-priced airfares has undoubtedly helped fill seats.
Walking through various aspects to the airline’s operations, there’s no doubting staff pride and passion. I sat in on a cabin crew service training programme in an A330 mock-up; marvelled at the Willy Wonka-ish industriousness of the airline’s catering division, where those famously succulent satay are slow-cooked over charcoal; and got an expansive walk through the flight safety training area, complete with emergency slide drills.
Prior to the annus horribilis of 2014, Malaysia was a highly distinguished airline, with a 5 star rating from Skytrax, reserved for an elite cluster of carriers who consistently deliver high quality product and service. But Christoph Mueller claims that for a year or two leading up to the twin tragedies, the airline had lost its edge and wasn’t innovating. So, under his watch, the airline will be making a concerted effort to reassert its leadership credentials as a world-leading airline of distinction.
All aspects of the customer experience will be overhauled, so they are state-of-the-art. From December, improvements will be made both in-flight and on the ground, ranging from new seating sizing and design, enhanced catering, better inflight entertainment, cutting-edge lounge concepts, along with operational improvements including improved punctuality and better connection times through Kuala Lumpur.
The carrier has already placed an order for the cutting-edge A350s with Airbus. One concept the airline has already actioned is the very impressive Chef-On-Call Menu. Rather than being saddled with the limited on-board menu options, Chef-On-Call allows you to select from 20 dishes, which you can pre-order online.
But Mueller was at great pains to stress that the all-encompassing makeover to Malaysia will be gradual and incremental. Newer aircraft and an enhanced customer experience will be deployed on the Auckland route over the next 18 months.
The long-standing elephant in the room has been whether the airline will have to change its name. Mueller wouldn’t confirm or deny whether that’s on the cards, but he did signal that “refreshed branding” will be unveiled to the world in December.
December Update - Malaysia Airlines has unveiled a global strategic partnership with Emirates to expand global reach and connectivity.
Mike Yardley flew to Kuala Lumpur as a guest of Malaysia Airlines.