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[DUBAI] Malaysia Airlines is close to launching a new airline that will use its six Airbus A380s to fly passengers undertaking the Muslim pilgrimages of Haj and Umrah, Chief Executive Peter Bellew said.
Mr Bellew told Reuters that all the key personnel, apart from a chief executive, have been appointed and are likely to be announced in the next two weeks as Malaysia Airlines finalises plans set in motion last year.
The A380s will be fitted with more than 700 seats in an all-economy layout but can be reconfigured in "four to five days" to 635 seats across economy and business class, Mr Bellew said. "We're hoping to come to a good agreement with Airbus on the reconfiguration cost on the aircraft," he said. "I'll still need some more help from them on that."
Malaysia's national airline has been trying to find a use for its A380s - the world's biggest passenger jet - since it failed to sell them. It previously said the A380s do not make economic sense at a time when it is cutting costs.
The new charter airline will have to operate Haj and Umrah flights around 180 days to 190 days a year to break even, but Mr Bellew said he expects to attract external investors and that the charter carrier will also operate non-pilgrimage flights.
Asked if it could be used to carry tour groups from a country such as China to Disneyland, Mr Bellew said: "I think you've hit the nail on the head there." He identified Barcelona, Rome and London Stansted as other potential destinations.
Malaysia Airlines is still recovering from two tragedies in 2014, when flight MH370 disappeared in what remains a mystery and flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine.
It is aiming for a return to profitability by 2018 and a stock market listing in March the following year.
The company is scheduled to receive two A350s this year and four more in 2018. It is also considering orders for 30-35 Airbus A330neos or Boeing 787-9s.
Airbus could delay delivery of Malaysia Airlines' first A350s until the end of 2017, Mr Bellew said, as the planemaker struggles to meet delivery targets after problems with suppliers.
An Airbus spokesman said the manufacturer does not discuss delivery schedules.