26 Aug 2014

Flying Malaysia Airlines: something only 'brave travellers' do

Passengers on Malaysia Airlines flights have been busy posting photos on Twitter of deserted cabins and rows and rows of empty seats.

It’s best just to say it softly to yourself. Malaysia Airlines. Speak too loudly and you might give someone a fright. Malaysia Airlines. It’s the aviation equivalent of “do not touch”. After two catastrophic incidents in five months, nobody wants to know their name.

Well that’s not entirely true. Take Monday’s headlines for example. A Malaysia Airlines plane, en route to Tokyo, was forced to turn back because there was an issue with the cabin pressure.  “Not a major problem,” said the head of the country’s aviation authority, Abdul Rahman. He is right of course. Every airline experiences minor mechanical problems. But Malaysia Airlines’ minor problems are international news.

Unsurprisingly, customers are staying away in droves and thanks to social media, the folks who run the company can’t exactly hide it. Passengers on Malaysia Airlines flights have been busy posting photos on Twitter of deserted cabins and rows and rows of empty seats.

Others make reference to their eventual “survival” upon reaching their destination. Flying Malaysia has become the sort of thing only “brave travellers” do. The company, and the country itself, are now coming to grips with the plight of its national airline and it seems, for the time being, that Malaysia has decided to keep it.

As a short term measure, fares have been slashed and travel agents’ commissions have been nearly doubled. Anything to get bums on seats. But that won’t cut it at a company thought to be losing more than $2m a day.


If Malaysia Airlines has got a future, however, it is going to need some serious help and that assistance is expected in the form of the government’s sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah. Few details have been released, but analysts expect Khazanah to wade in with emergency cash while a new management team undertakes a radical restructuring.

A new-born Malaysia Airlines will shed routes and plenty of staff (a quarter of the firm’s 19,000 employees may lose their jobs) but there is no guarantee it will work. The brand is awash in the sticky waters of negative sentiment. “There is no historical parallel for this,” says Mohshin Aziz, aviation analyst at Maybank. “Nobody has attempted to rescue an airline in a similar position and I think it is difficult to say what will happen.”

Those people now employed by the company will curse their luck for it has been Malaysia Airlines’ misfortune to reveal to the world unforeseen risks and vulnerabilities connected with modern aviation.

Before the disappearance of MH370 over the Indian Ocean in March, the industry discounted the ability of one person – or a small group – to render an aircraft invisible by severing its sophisticated communication systems.

Yet even now, its location remains a mystery. A private company is currently using two vessels to map the bottom of the southern Indian Ocean. It hopes to restart the search for the remains of MH370 with towed instruments and submersible vehicles in late September.

Furthermore, experts thought aircraft flying at 33,000 feet and above were largely immune from warring parties and their weaponry down below. The tragic deaths of 298 on board MH17 in Ukraine has prompted an urgent rethink about how civilian airlines choose and schedule their routes.

Malaysia Airlines has changed the way we think about flying. Until recently, it was all about increased availability and affordability as low cost airlines expanded around the globe. But this troubled carrier has reminded us that air travel is not risk-free.


Thai Airways claims its services are “smooth as silk” but my family would question the veracity of that slogan after our scheduled flight from London to Bangkok was delayed for 18 hours last week.

We boarded at the scheduled time, told there was a fault with the computer software, then held on the aircraft for the next four hours. At 1:35am the chirpy sounding cabin manager said we would have to disembark. Hotels would be found for the 300-odd people on board, he said, while they tried to fix the problem.

Roll forward to 4am as two separate queues of increasingly exasperated passengers, desperate for a room, snaked out the front door of Heathrow’s Sofitel Hotel. Not unlike those who provide assistance at marathons, staff from the hotel divvied out water bottles along with general words of encouragement.

“Don’t worry,” said the concierge. “This happens every night. It’s often British Airways, sometimes Lufthansa or KLM. It’s the way it goes.”

We left the following afternoon wishing there was some other way to travel long distances – like container ships, for example.

Follow @c4sparks on Twitter