News / Asia

After Disasters, Stricken Malaysia Airlines Staff Brace for Job Cuts

Ground crew work among Malaysia Airlines planes on the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, July 25, 2014.
Ground crew work among Malaysia Airlines planes on the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, July 25, 2014.

As bodies from downed Flight MH17 were brought home last week, a group of Malaysia Airlines flight attendants, in black mourning headscarves contrasting with their pink and turquoise uniforms, sobbed and clung to each other in grief.

The 19,500 staff of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) now face a new ordeal - a quarter of them may lose their jobs at the unprofitable airline, hit by two jet disasters this year. Flight MH370 remains untraced since its disappearance en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March.

Deep job losses, route cuts and a change of leadership are expected to feature in a restructuring plan being prepared by Malaysia's government for announcement as early as Thursday, when MAS also reports second-quarter results. Likely the last before being de-listed, the numbers are expected to show plunging ticket sales and heavy losses even before July's shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine.

As state fund Khazanah Nasional, the majority owner, prepares to take the company private and inject efficiency into the airline, it must tackle crumbling staff morale and win over the powerful main labor union if turnaround efforts are to succeed.

“MAS is suffering from an image problem and a problem with the staff,” said Nik Huslan, former chief pilot at MAS. “They have to find someone the staff can respect and rally behind.”

Even before the lost aircraft tragedies, airline insiders said staff discontent had been growing for years due to strategy U-turns, leadership changes and poor career prospects.

One of the region's most prestigious and fastest-growing airlines in the 1990s, MAS has steadily fallen behind high-end rivals such as Singapore Airlines and been battered by the rise of Asia's budget carriers like AirAsia. The company hasn't made an annual profit since 2010.

This year's twin disasters have caused new stresses. A total of 186 MAS flight crew quit between January and July, many of them due to family pressure not to fly after the crashes, MAS says. Over 5,000 MAS staff work as cabin crew or pilots and the airline says the resignation rate has now returned to normal.

About a quarter of MAS staff are likely to lose their jobs under Khazanah's plan, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. The pill is likely to be sweetened with costly redundancy packages and offers of jobs at other state enterprises.

Union Muscle

Malaysia Airlines executives told Reuters that the tragedies had served as a wake-up call to staff, and even to recalcitrant union bosses, that drastic change could no longer be avoided if the 42-year-old company is to survive.

“There needs to be a change in the mindset, and people are coming around to that,” said one senior executive. “People must realize that they may need to work differently - the crew may have to work longer shifts or they may have shorter layovers. The engineers may have to work a bit longer or clear aircraft faster.”

But such demands would also have to be leavened with incentives to encourage staff, or at least a convincing message that they will eventually see benefits, the main union has warned.

“We want to see things in total, and what the long-term plan is,” said Mohd Jabarullah Abdul Kadir, executive secretary of the Malaysia Airlines Employees Union (MASEU), which represents 13,000 of the carrier's staff. “If there are retrenchments, they cannot cut staff numbers without basis.”

For Prime Minister Najib Razak, who chairs Khazanah, the plan will be seen as the latest gauge of his credentials as a reformer in Southeast Asia's third-largest economy.

State firms are used as one tool to reinforce affirmative action policies favoring majority ethnic Malays over other races and are heavily intertwined with Najib's long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The main union at MAS has close ties to UMNO - and has successfully resisted previous restructuring attempts.

'Same Circus, Different Clowns'

Crew who have worked at the airline recently complained about a lack of opportunities to progress in their careers. Cabin crew are typically offered five-year contracts, they said, after which they start from scratch with a new five-year deal.

“There's always uncertainty for your career because of this arrangement,” said one former crew member, who was with the airline for nearly three decades from the mid-1980s and recalls the “exciting” early days of the airline's rapid expansion.

Huslan, the former chief pilot, blamed “poor talent management” for high attrition rates among pilots and engineers. “They leave for better prospects because they don't see it in MAS. This has been on the rise,” he said.

To reverse that, the most vital ingredient of the turnaround plan may be a new chief executive who can effectively communicate the new strategy, execute the plan, and win over doubters.

The sober demeanor of current chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, who relaxes by competing in triathlons, is a stark contrast to the brash showmanship of Malaysia's most famous airline boss, Tony Fernandes of budget carrier AirAsia.

“Airlines are about image,” said Huslan. “If you cannot carry an image, well that's the end of the story for you. You cannot have a humble and shy CEO.”

Others say previous changes in the carrier's management have failed to wipe out inefficiencies, while breeding skepticism among staff that new leadership can bring lasting improvements.

“Every time somebody new steps in there's a pretense of change,” said the former MAS cabin crew member. “We have a famous saying among the staff: 'It's the same circus, with different clowns'.”  

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs