Reeling from a second calamity in four months, Malaysia Airlines has made a remarkably generous offer. Any passenger booked to travel on the troubled carrier between now and the end of the year who no longer wishes to fly – at least not on Malaysia Airlines – may apply by next Thursday for a full refund, even if they have booked a deeply discounted, heavily restricted ticket.
The carrier says: “Passengers who wish to postpone or cancel their travel plans can obtain a refund, including for non-refundable tickets.”
Legally, the airline had no such obligation to passengers: it is operating normally and meeting all applicable safety requirements. Rationally, there is no reason to shun an airline that remains a premium carrier, offering excellent standards across a wide network; the disasters that have befallen it this year are unrelated, and all the evidence suggests that the loss on Thursday of MH17 was an arbitrary act of murder that could have struck any carrier flying over eastern Ukraine. But morally, the airline wants to do the right thing by passengers who have lost faith in its ability to operate safely.
The mother of one such passenger contacted The Independent to ask: “Daughter booked to fly next month from Amsterdam – same route and airline that crashed. Can she cancel and get a full refund?”
She can now, if she contacts the airline or her travel agent by next Thursday, 24 July – which will increase the financial pressure on an airline whose prospects look forlorn.
At the start of 2012, Malaysia Airlines boasted one of the most extensive long-haul networks in the world – including an ultra-long-range route from its hub in Kuala Lumpur via Cape Town to Buenos Aires. By the end of that year, it had launched a double-daily Airbus A380 “SuperJumbo” service on its flagship link to London Heathrow.
In 2013, Malaysia’s national carrier joined the prestigious Oneworld alliance, alongside carriers such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. But in the opening months of this year, it was losing £1m per day – with much worse to come.
The disappearance on 8 March of MH370, a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, has become the greatest aviation mystery of all time. No trace of the Boeing 777 and the 239 passengers and crew on board has been identified.
The loss of MH370, and the massive media attention the incident received, led to a “high cancellation of existing bookings and reduction in long-haul bookings,” according to the airline’s most recent financial report. Sales in China fell by 60 per cent, partly because of anger in the People’s Republic about the way the loss was handled. The airline’s finances were traumatised. In the first quarter, it lost a total of RMB518m, almost £100m. Business dwindled, but out of respect to the victims, marketing was suspended. Activity resumed in May with the aim of “business continuity and recovery programmes for all markets”. At the time, the airline said: “We expect to see positive impact on sales later in the year.”
Instead, as the 20,000 staff grieve the loss of yet more colleagues, the destruction of MH17 and the 298 souls on board means this is certain to be the worst year in Malaysia Airlines’ 42-year history, financially as well as emotionally.
The airline has announced that its daily Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight is to be re-numbered MH19 – just as the overnight KL-Beijing service changed from MH370 to MH618.
While Malaysia’s government will, for now, soak up the increasing losses, it looks increasingly likely that a change of identity is the only long-term option for an airline whose luck has run out.