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.
Reuters

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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More