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

Video Egyptian Journalists Call for Press Freedom

Despite release of al-Jazeera journalists and others, Egyptian Journalist Syndicate says some remain imprisoned More

Turkey Survey Indicates Traditional Distrusts, Shift to the West

Comprehensive public opinion survey also found a large majority of those interviewed distrust all countries other than country’s neighbor, Azerbaijan More

Pakistan Court Upholds Death Sentence in Blasphemy Killing

Highest court upholds sentence of Mumtaz Qadri convicted of 2011 killing a provincial governor for criticizing country’s controversial blasphemy law More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making a Minti
October 07, 2015 4:17 AM
While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video Self-Driving Cars Getting Closer

We are at the dawn of the robotic car age and should start getting used to seeing self-driving cars, at least on highways. Car and truck manufacturers are now running a tight race to see who will be the first to hit the street, while some taxicab companies are already planning to upgrade their fleets. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Clinton Seeks to Boost Image Before Upcoming Debate

The five announced Democratic party presidential contenders meet in their first debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, but she is getting a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video South Carolina Reels Under Worst-ever Flooding

South Carolina is reeling from the worst flooding in recorded history that forced residents from their homes and left thousands without drinking water and electricity. Parts of the state, including the capital, Columbia, received about 60 centimeters of rain in just a couple of days. Authorities warn that the end of rain does not mean the end of danger, as it will take days for the water to recede. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs