The once-beleaguered Malaysia Airlines is now firmly on the comeback track, with brand new aircraft, new services like inflight WiFi, upgraded lounges for business class and first class flyers and extra flights to Australia cities, both launched and on the horizon.
Australian Business Traveller sat down with Malaysia Airlines’ Chief Commercial Officer Arved Von Zur Muehlen, during his recent visit to Brisbane, to find out what’s next for Malaysia’ flag carrier.
Malaysia Airlines resumes Brisbane flights
With four non-stop flights per week between Brisbane and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines is now back in Queensland after a two-year hiatus, using its refitted Airbus A330-300 jets which come equipped with the airline’s newest fully-flat seats in business class on every flight:
AusBT review: Malaysia Airlines Airbus A330 business class
But that’s just the beginning, with Malaysia Airlines already eyeing extra flights to Brisbane as bookings pick up, despite facing competition from carriers like Malindo Air, which also flies from Brisbane to KL but as a one-stop journey, detouring via Bali each way.
“I think ideally, (Brisbane is) five days or even daily, so we’ll see how it goes,” Muehlen shares. “The most cost efficient is five or seven (flights per week), so four is a good start but five I think is best.
“Brisbane is a very good destination and we were flying there since 1990: then we stopped and now we’re back… of course, every airline that flies takes a share, but I think Malindo Air’s main business is Brisbane-Bali, not so much Brisbane-KL. Our bookings are coming in quite nicely, so we're quite optimistic.”
More Airbus A380 flights for Australia?
With A380s currently running on some Sydney-KL flights, we asked if there were plans to make these jets a year-round fixture, and perhaps make an appearance on flights to Melbourne and Brisbane as well, as capacity requires.
“Where we see quite strong bookings, such as for Sydney and London, we’re a bit flexible in how these aircraft are used, although the A380s are mainly great for supporting routes in peak seasons,” Muehlen explains.
At other times, Malaysia Airlines will use them to support charter services from Kuala Lumpur to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah religious pilgrimages, after several of the superjumbos undergo scheduled maintenance.
As for Melbourne, the decision was one between frequency or A380s. “It depends on slots, timing and market demands, and then we make that decision: and right now, Melbourne is double daily, but we want to have 17 flights per week later this year, using the A330s (not the A380s).”
Superjumbos in Brisbane, however, “are a long way off”, and speaking generally of flights to Canberra, Muehlen says “we always look for new markets and new destinations, but quite honestly, Canberra, I would not see on our roadmap in the near future.”
But what about Perth..?
Flights from Perth to Kuala Lumpur are the odd ones out, being served by smaller Boeing 737s with reclining seats in business class as opposed to Airbus A330s with fully-flat beds: and ditto Malaysia Airlines’ non-stop Perth-Kota Kinabalu services, served also by the Boeing 737.
AusBT review: Malaysia Airlines’ Boeing 737 business class
“Our plan is still to move Perth to an Airbus A330 on flights from Kuala Lumpur,” Muehlen continues. “It's just a question of timing on when we are going to do that, and then we’ll see if it's an A330-200 or an A330-300.”
“The ‘Perth problem’ for us is more about aircraft availability, not passenger demand. You also need the right onward connectivity to meet passengers’ travel needs (and fill the aircraft), and that’s why we currently have up to two Boeing 737 flights each day, rather than one A330 flight.”
Speaking of connecting passengers in light of Qantas launching non-stop Perth-London flights, Muehlen explains that around the same time, “we reduced KL-London capacity from Airbus A380s to A350s, so it’s difficult to say what effect Qantas’ new flights have had on our bookings.”
“Our loads are very decent on the (London) route now, so I'm not overly worried with Qantas’ flight,” says Muehlen.
Inflight WiFi takes to the skies
With the introduction of the Airbus A350, Malaysia Airlines passengers can surf from the sky for the very first time via the plane’s inflight WiFi system – and with several WiFi-equipped, ex-Airberlin A330s joining the Malaysia Airlines fleet this year, passengers on even more routes may soon be able to use the service.
“These planes right now are in testing – the hardware is already there, and the plan is to fly one of these aircraft to Auckland, but the question is whether we activate (the WiFi system) or not, because you need to activate it for the whole fleet, not only one aircraft.”
Muehlen explains that passengers travelling on flights of eight hours or more are much more likely to purchase WiFi access than those on shorter routes, so while passengers from Auckland might be keen to connect, when the same aircraft flies the two-hour hop from KL to Bangkok, the uptake probably won’t be as strong.
“WiFi for us is not an ancillary that we considered for making money, it’s something that customers expect to have on board,” he continues. “That's why we’re evaluating it, and the uptake rate is very decent on our London flights: higher than we thought, in fact.”
AusBT review: Malaysia Airlines’ Airbus A350 inflight Internet
New Malaysia Airlines lounges for London
Following a complete redevelopment of the airline’s Kuala Lumpur lounges, the carrier’s business class and first class Golden Lounges at London Heathrow are next for an upgrade: but it’ll be less of a refurbishment than a touch-up, says Muehlen.
“We’re looking at the furniture, looking at the carpets, these kind of things, but the layout will not change dramatically. We will work on the food concept though, because we feel the food is such an important part of the Malaysian Hospitality (MH), to introduce more live cooking.”
“The airport has very tough regulations on heat and fire, so we are working through these to see how we can upgrade the food. I think food is just so emotional in Malaysia, I always say when I meet my Malaysian friends for lunch, they talk about dinner already while they are eating lunch, so food is just a part of the hospitality and we need to reflect it on board as well as in the lounges.”
That said, Malaysia Airlines’ Oneworld partner Qatar Airways also runs a lounge at Heathrow which Malaysia’s business class and first class passengers can access, which some business travellers prefer because of its a la carte dining room, among other features: drawing passengers away from Malaysia Airlines’ own Golden Lounges.
AusBT review: Qatar Airways Premium Lounge, London Heathrow
“We are not in competition with the Qatar lounge, as such… it's not that we look at Qatar and say we have to copy Qatar: we’re quite happy keeping our Malaysian style, and for us, that’s all about the food and the service,” which will become a bigger focus of the refreshed Golden Lounges.
“That’s why in all our other lounges now, even domestic, we have live cooking. It’s all done fresh in front of you, especially laksa, pasta, sandwiches and pancakes in the mornings… we get very good feedback about it. I think our lounges are seen as a very efficient, friendly and positive,” Muehlen concludes.