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?