Malaysia Airlines: Waiting for the white knight

Courtesy Reuters

IN July, there was much excitement about Qatar Airways’ interest in acquiring Malaysia Airlines (MAS), being one of four proposals received by the ailing flag carrier of Malaysia. It seems that has as quickly dissipated.

According to sources, apparently only one proposal from local investors Jentayu Danaraksha Sdn Bhd (JDSB) is left on the table. The consulting firm is fronted by former MAS chief executive officer Tan Sri Abdul Azia who retired in 1991.

But MAS’ owner Khazanah does not seem to favour JDSB which in 2014 said it was keen to revive the carrier but was snubbed.

There has been ambiguity as to whether MAS prefers a local or foreign investor. But there is now new excitement about the possibility that Japan Airlines (JAL) might be that white knight. Much has been hyped about JAL being a good fit for MAS since it had only not too long ago pulled through a difficult time of near collapse and would therefore know what’s needed to rescue MAS.

JAL has earlier tied up with MAS to operate joint flights between Japan and Malaysia, and it looks like a natural step forward to take on a bigger role. Besides, both airlines belong to the OneWorld Alliance (and so too Qatar Airways).

And while the powers that be at Khazanah are gushing with excitement about that prospect, JAL president Yuji Asaka said it was too early to consider an equity investment in MAS but future discussions were possible.

Extending its reach internationally may be a strategy for JAL in competing with rival All Nippon Airways. So far it has partnered with airlines which include China Eastern Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Garuda Indonesia in commercial agreements. But equity acquisition is so far not on the card. So it may be a long road, so patience may just be what MAS needs right now.

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Will Qatar Airways be Malaysia Airlines’ white knight?

Some three to four months after Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohamad said ailing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) may shut down or be sold, he revealed he had received four proposals to take over the national flag carrier.

The first known interest came from former AirAsia non-executive chairman Pahamin Ab Rajab and five partners, whose consortium is looking at scooping up a 49 per cent stake in MAS. Whether AirAsia is part of the consortium is not clear, but the budget carrier’s chief Tony Fernandes had said he was not interested as it would be a mistake for a low-cost operator to want to go full-service. (See Can AirAsia save Malaysia Airlines, 8 July 2019)

Qatar Airways now emerged as the second prospective white knight come to the rescue of MAS following a meeting between Dr Mahatir and Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamin Hamad al-Thani. Both Qatar and MAS belong to the OneWorld alliance. At least that’s common ground for a start, unless geopolitical problems Qatar faces with its neighbours that lead to its isolation in the region stand in the way.

But, of course, no doubt Qatar has the funds to shore up the loss-making MAS. There are good competitive reasons for doing so. The tie-up will certainly boost Qatar’s standing in Southeast Asia and the extended Asian region. Dr Mahatir has recognised that MAS suffers from fierce competition, and Qatar’s aggressive strategy in the international arena may well also push the Malaysian carrier in the same direction.

The acquisition will complement Qatar’s investment in Europe, where it is already a major shareholder of the International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus. With a share of 20.01 per cent, it s IAG’s largest single stakeholder.

It is interesting that of the four proposals received by MAS, Qatar is the only foreign company. It is not known if the other proposals are from industry players apart from the suggestion that Mr Pahamin had an aviation link in a non-executive capacity. That probably explains how many industry experts think MAS’ best bet is AirAsia, once a carrier heavily indebted and now Asia’s leading budget operator.

Qatar’s credentials as the world’s best airline voted by Skytrax respondents are impressive, but national pride to keep the flag carrier in local hands may present a hurdle. Yet one only has to look at Swiss International Air Lines now owned by the Lufthansa Group and the merger between Air France and KLM to appreciate how in business, the desire to survive will dictate the course. Already Dr Mahatir has assured his people MAS will retain its name.

Can AirAsia save Malaysia Airlines?

Courtesy Reuters

Back in March, AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes said he was not keen on acquiring Malaysia Airlines (MAS).

This came amidst speculation of a likely scenario when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad mulled over the future of the beleaguered flag carrier, suggesting it might be better off sold if not downsized or expanded as the case may be with a change of management.

Dr Mahatir said: “Although we hired foreign management, MAS still faced losses. Therefore, one of the options is to sell.”

Four turnaround initiatives without success had apparently cost the government MYR250 billion (USD 6.05 billion).

Recent events have led to renewed speculation of AirAsia’s interest. Former AirAsia Group Bhd non-executive chairman Pahamin Rajab is said to have met Dr Mahatir. However, it might well point to Mr Pahamin’s personal interest eyeing the top job at Malaysia Airlines following the resignation of Tan Sri Mohammed Nor Md Yusof as chairman.

But if the acquisition does come about, it would be an interesting case of how a budget carrier came to assimilate a larger national carrier. AirAsia, once itself heavily indebted, had become Asia’s leading budget carrier.

There are clear benefits of such a merger. The two carriers can complement their networks and not compete as rivals on the same routes given AirAsia’s ambition to expand into the long-haul market, unless the products differ substantially in their make-up. This can be modelled after the likes of Singapore Airlines-Scoot and Qantas-Jetstar complement.

The execution is key. The industry has seen one too many examples of assimilation by a legacy carrier of a low-cost operator. For AirAsia, the big question must be one of how its operating culture will mesh with that of MAS, noting in particular that its success lies in the austere budget model although this does not imply it is not inclined to be service-bias.

One can’t help but wonder how and why MAS has failed to change in spite of earlier initiatives at restructuring, so much said about cost-cutting and perhaps not enough focus on the operating culture. So can AirAsia work the magic?

But, of course, only if Mr Fernandes wanted it. He had said: “For low-cost carriers to go full-service… is a mistake.” He had also called Malaysia Airlines “old-fashioned”. For him, the priority is to transform AirAsia into a “travel technology company”. In his words, to be “more than just an airline”.

The real question then is: Is MAS ready for the transformation?

Size matters in the air

Courtesy Getty Images

Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary predicted that “within the next four to five years you are seeing the emergence of four or five large European airline groups.” He even named the airlines, Ryanair among them in a mix of full-service and low-cost operators: Lufthansa, IAG (International Airlines Group which owns British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling and Level), Air France-KLM and, probably, Easyjet.

This sentiment has been opined before by others at a time when mergers, assimilations and acquisitions across the industry were trending as competition broke barriers of entry and intensified, and so-called safe niche markets became every player’s game.

Air France-KLM as the name suggests is a merger of the two European airlines in 2004. Rival British Airways (BA) viewed it as a step in the expected direction, predicting further consolidation within Europe. And in 2011 IAG came into being when BA and Iberia merged. BA chief executive Willie Walsh said at the time that the merger would enable the airline to compete effectively with low-cost carriers.

So there came a time when budget carriers began to pose a threat to full-service airlines, with Ryanair leading the pack. Many of the legacy airlines today have adopted the budget model of charging for ancillaries, and introducing a basic economy class to keep cost-conscious travellers from switching. However, many low-cost carriers have become victims of the competition – the reason why Mr O’Leary named only one other carrier, EasyJet, as a probable survivor.

EasyJet, founded in 1995 and headquartered in London Luton, UK, is Ryanair’s closest rival which has grown and spread its wings across Europe. It too has made a number of acquisitions which include Swiss TEA-Basle and Go.
Elsewhere around the world, the vibes are not unfamiliar, New in the circuit is Air Canada’s interest in Sunwing and Cathay Pacific’s interest in Air Hong Kong Express, And where acquisitions and mergers are not on the plate, airlines are working to form alliances that are more than mere code-sharing. Qantas did it in 2013 with its tie-up with Emirates, and now Malaysia Airlines and Japan Airlines have applied for waiver of government restrictions to form an alliance that will enable easier connections between the two carriers.

It looks like size matters in the air.

AirAsia completes Asian conquest

Courtesy AirAsia

AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes said the latest agreement to set up a joint venture in China with Everbright Group “closes the loop” in the region. He added that AirAsia China “represents the final piece of the AirAsia puzzle.”

The Chinese joint venture came on the heels of the agreement with Gumin Company Limited, businessman Tran Trong Kien and Hai Au Aviation Joint Stock Company to set up AirAsia Vietnam, which is expected to commence operations in the first half of 2018.

These two ventures add to an impressive list that already includes Thai AirAsia, Indonesia AirAsia, Philippines AirAsia and AirAsia India, giving the Malaysian budget carrier a base in almost every major country in the region from India and across Southeast Asia to China. The exception is Japan when an earlier joint venture with All Nippon Airways – AirAsia Japan – was disbanded just over a year after it commenced operations in August 2012.

Notwithstanding that, AirAsia’s ambition to be the region’s main player remains unthwarted, capitalising on Asia’s growing middle class and its propensity for air travel, particularly in populous China, India and Indonesia. Headquartered in Kulala Lumpur, it is now larger than flag carrier Malaysia Airlines and is Asia’ largest budget carrier.

But Mr Fernandes enjoys wrestling with the big boys. AirAsia’s strategy is not confined to the domestic market, which will place it in good stead to compete beyond the borders in time. Not content to be just Asia’s largest budget carrier, AirAsia is once again trying to prove sceptics wrong about the viability of the long haul as it launches flights from Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu in June – this, despite its failure to sustain services to Paris and London five years ago. If success seemed elusive in the past – the same fate that had dealt similar blows to others such as Hong Kong’s Oasis Airlines who dare go where others fear to tread – Mr Fernandes deserves credit at least for trying.

Is Malaysia Airlines now a budget long-haul carrier?

Courtesy GETTY Images

Courtesy GETTY Images

IT is baffling how Malaysia Airlines (MAS) gets entangled in the PR mess when it decided to ban checked baggage on its flights from Kuala Lumpur to Europe. Economy class passengers were allowed only one cabin bag of up to 7 kg and first/business class passengers double that allowance.

MAS cited “strong headwinds” as the reason.

Public reaction pointed to the ludicrousness of the decision. Considering that such flights are long-hauls and the northern winter, it was an affront verging on what some travellers would consider as unreasonable.

Apparently, for safety reasons MAS is taking a longer air route to reach European destinations, having suffered a fatal loss when one of its planes was shot down over war-torn Ukraine in July last year. Taking the longer route means using more fuel, so that would increase operating costs.

Has MAS become a budget long-haul, as it undergoes massive restructuring under the leadership of ex-Aer Lingus chief Christoph Mueller?

Although MAS reverted the ill-conceived decision after two days of negative public reaction, the damage has been done. Didn’t Mr Mueller see what was coming?

Can Emirates tie-up save Malaysia Airlines?

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has signed a mega codeshare deal with Emirates Airlines. The commercial partnership will allow the former access to more than 90 locations in the United States, Europe, the Middle-East and Africa via Emirates’ Dubai hub. MAS will terminate its own direct flights to Paris and Amsterdam along with codeshare agreements with existing partners. In exchange, Emirates passengers can connect MAS flights within the Asia Pacific region.

Sounds familiar? Indeed, this looks like new man Christoph Mueller at the helm of the loss-making Malaysian flag carrier doing what Qantas chief Alan Joyce did in 2013 when a mega alliance with Emirates allows Qantas passengers similar extensive access to a host of destinations out of Dubai. Hired to makeover and turn MAS around, Mr Mueller said of the Emirates tie-up: “Our network architecture is largely complete with this move. It’s a very, very big and important piece in our puzzle.”

But can the tie-up replicate the success of Qantas and contribute immensely to saving MAS? Lest we be too hasty here, it should be noted that though the move is similar, the circumstances aren’t exactly the same.

Mr Mueller’s task is focused largely on cutting costs for a tighter ship, and he has since becoming chief executive in March this year cut thousands of jobs. Another measure involves cutting back on unprofitable routes, and the carrier has so far trimmed capacity by 30 per cent. Mr Mueller was set to shift the focus from operating long haul routes to beefing up regional routes, literally downsizing the carrier; routes that had been dropped include flights to Istanbul and Frankfurt, a precursor of its withdrawal from continental Europe with the exception to London (as in the case of Qantas). This creates a gap in its network which Mr Mueller hopes will be compensated by its tie-up with Emirates, moving away from what he referred to as the traditional ‘kangaroo-route-centric approach”.

The codeshare makes sense since MAS is not making money on its long haul flights. Cost aside, in truth, MAS is just not able to measure up to the competition of regional rivals that ply the same routes, most notably its closest rival Singapore Airlines (SIA). Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) where MAS is based and Singapore Changi Airport are less than an hour apart, but Changi outperforms KLIA in attracting hub traffic. Here lies the difference between Qantas and MAS. The Australian flag carrier’s move involves a critical shift of its kangaroo route hub from Changi to Dubai, advantaging the latter in the hub competition. Unlike Qantas, MAS does not enjoy a similar base market out of KLIA. Qantas’ shift is also an attempt to lure more traffic away from its rival SIA to connect through Dubai. It is unlikely that MAS will be able to lure hub traffic away from Changi to fly out of KLIA and connect onward from Dubai. MAS’ tie-up with Emirates is best seen as a necessary cost-cutting measure.

Quite clearly Mr Mueller who is often credited as the man who turned around Aer Lingus before joining MAS understands the criticality of the beleaguered carrier recovering strength before competing. He is building a strong regional network which can at the same time feed the longer routes. But the competition in this arena is just as tough. Besides legacy airline competitors such as SIA and Cathay Pacific, there is also an array of budget carriers that are becoming a real threat to full-service airlines. On home ground, MAS faces challenges from AirAsia, which is Asia’s largest budget carrier. The competition will intensify as Asean moves towards a more liberal open skies policy. (See The Elusive Asean Open Skies Dream. Dec 17, 2015).

When Qantas and Emirates inked their agreement, some sceptics cast doubt about its benefits to the former and in fact believed that the latter would gain more by it. But it was Qantas that needed it more as it introduced a transformation program to turn round its bleeding international arm, which Mr Joyce had said in subsequent reports of the airline’s financial performance that the arrangement has boosted the flying kangaroo’s bottom line.

If the Emirates tie-up was a lifeline thrown to Qantas, surely it is all the more so to MAS. In exchange for allowing MAS access to 38 destinations in Europe, 15 in the US and 38 in the Gulf region, Africa and Indian Ocean, Emirates will gain access to some 300 daily MAS flights in its Asian network. The question is: Does Emirates really need it? Perhaps selectively, to tap into the growing markets in countries such as China and Vietnam.

In the bigger picture, Emirates has been forging codeshare agreements around the world. In Asia, besides MAS it already has arrangements with Bangkok Airways, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, Jetstar Asia, Korean Air and Thai Airways International. Outside that region, it has entered into codeshare agreements with Air Malta, Air Mauritius, Alaska Airlines (pending government approval), Flybe, Jetblue Airways, Jetstar Airways, Oman Air, Qantas, South African Airways and TAP Portugal. Although there appears to be a low count of codesharing with European carriers, Emirates being strong in the competition provides good connections to the region. While the withdrawal of airlines of Qantas and MAS from Europe may be welcome news as seeming reduced competition for European carriers (and other international carriers as well), the feed from those partner airlines into Emirates will actually further strengthen Emirates’ position.

As far as MAS is concerned, riding on the back of another strong carrier may yet be its best bet for recovery.

This is a version of an article that was first published in Aspire Aviation.