Chief executive Peter Bellew is ‘on a mission to fix’ carrier hit by two traumas in 2014 and says it is on the road to recovery. Amie Keeley reports

Despite describing trading last year as challenging, Malaysia Airlines chief executive Peter Bellew remains optimistic.

The airline is still recovering after two devastating incidents in 2014: the mysterious disappearance of flight MH370 and the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine.

The carrier was pushed to the brink of failure, but today its future looks far more certain than three years ago, when average weekly bookings slumped 33% and it was forced to axe 6,000 jobs.

At the beginning of the month, the company reported an improved load factor of 81% in the final quarter of 2016, compared with 70% the year before.

It carried 3.8 million passengers in that period, up from 3.6 million in the three months prior, while market share has risen from 45% in May 2016 to 60% today.
Bellew says: “You don’t get to numbers like that until the brand is bang on and the name and reputation is right back up there.

“That’s very important for us because there was a lot of debate about changing the name and logo.”

The airline is also hiring again, with new staff in digital and finance roles, cabin crew and pilots.

Foreign affairs

Bellew assumed the top job after being promoted from chief operating officer last summer, succeeding German Christoph Mueller. As an Irishman with a background at Ryanair, he admits there was some disquiet about another foreigner running Malaysia’s national carrier. But he says he has been overwhelmed with good wishes and is determined to prove his critics wrong.

However, with weak currency, overcapacity in the market and a potential price war, he has his work cut out.

Bellew is tasked with cutting costs by £73.5 million this year.

Delivery of Malaysia’s first Airbus A350 is expected to be delayed by one to two months to December 2017, which may force the airline to seek additional wide-bodied aircraft in the interim.

Further ahead, between 25 and 30 new wide-bodied aircraft will enter service from 2019.

Extras are free

Bellew says the airline will look to differentiate from competitors by continuing to offer all-inclusive prices, countrary to the unbundling approach preferred by rivals.

“We don’t charge extra for anything,” he says. “Many people don’t want to be charged with extras. If I can find more things to include, I will. Unbundling is making the whole experience a little bit utilitarian. We’re trying to bring a bit of romance back.”

While there are no plans to increase Malaysia’s twice-daily flights from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur, the carrier is looking to consolidate its UK market share.

Marketing manager Bettina Walsh left last week but the airline is looking to expand its UK team. Natalie Kromponi, who previously worked for Emirates, has been appointed account manager for leisure sales and the airline is recruiting for several other roles.

Bellew says: “We’ve had huge support from the UK trade.”

Building the future

There are a number of ongoing investigations following the downing of flight MH17 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which Bellew describes as “deeply political”, while the search for MH370, which was suspended in January, will move to a more scientific search, based on data.

He says the two disasters have helped “build steel” among Malaysia Airlines’ workforce.

“For us it’s deeply personal because we work with the people who lost friends and family.

“There is a belief that we owe it to the staff and families to build the airline back up again. No group in history has been through what we have been through so it’s built a bit of steel among us. There’s a mission to fix it. It will never leave us, but maybe the tragedy gives us the will to go on.”