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The case of the missing cases: Malaysia Airlines suffers latest snafu

Wednesday, January 6, 2016 - 19:03
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Public relations disasters at Malaysia Airlines come with a lot of baggage.

[SYDNEY] Public relations disasters at Malaysia Airlines come with a lot of baggage. 

In the past two years the airline had one plane with 239 passengers and crew disappear and another shot down by a missile, killing all 298 people on board.

It's had its website hacked, pulled an advertising campaign that was seen as insensitive and filed the wrong flight plan on a journey from New Zealand. 

Today's trouble may be the most bizarre of all.

The airline on Tuesday banned check-in baggage on flights to Paris and Amsterdam, saying strong headwinds might cause its planes to run out of fuel if they were too heavy.

Hundreds took to the Internet to complain, criticise and mock the carrier, which then dropped the baggage ban Wednesday, explaining it had found a shorter way to Europe. No other airline asked passengers to leave their luggage because of the windy weather.

The suitcase snafu has the potential to further alienate travelers from an airline that has mounting losses and is struggling to win back passengers after the two crashes that killed more than 500 people.

The run of problems prompted the Malaysian government to take over full control of the carrier, fire employees, cut routes and appoint a new chief executive officer to try to turn the company around.

"When they do things like this they alienate passengers, even their loyal passengers," said Shukor Yusof, founder of Endau Analytics, an aviation consultancy firm in Malaysia.

"It's been a series of really, really disastrous public relations exercises."

SERIAL SNAFUS

The carrier's September 2014 "Bucket List" advertising campaign, which referred to places passengers would most like to visit before they "kick the bucket," sparked social media criticism coming so soon after the deadly crashes.

Last month, the airline began investigating why Auckland air traffic control was provided with a wrong flight plan after the pilot questioned the air route.

Then, late Tuesday, the carrier told long-haul passengers they should fly without checked-in luggage on European flights, citing the intense headwinds.

The public response was swift and incredulous, with netizens labeling the move "ridiculous," "mental" and "stranger than fiction." "I probably won't be booking on this particular airline anytime soon," Susan Lanier-Graham, editor-in-chief at travel website Wander, wrote on Facebook.

In less than 24 hours, the airline backtracked, saying it had found a shorter route and people could bring their luggage after all.

SAFETY CONCERNS

The mystifying episode has its roots in Malaysia Airlines' concern about flight paths after one of its aircraft was shot down in 2014 over Ukraine in an area of military conflict. 

The airline said it recently has been operating a longer route to Europe and headwinds over the last four days were in excess of 200 knots, causing a Boeing Co 777-200 to burn as much as 15 per cent more fuel. It said baggage was being shipped separately to affected customers in Europe.

"It's an operational measure to avoid conflict zones," said Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of Malaysia's civil aviation department.

"There were strong headwinds in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea and the time taken to fly from here to Europe was longer."

The longer route ran south, over Egypt. Malaysia Airlines later changed the plan to fly over Iran for the first time since October, the carrier said in an e-mailed statement. 

BEATEN UP

Peter Bellew, Malaysia Airlines' chief operating officer, said in a phone interview Wednesday that even in hindsight, the carrier wouldn't do anything differently. 

"We did this for safety and we tried to do the honest thing with communications for our customers," he said of the public criticism. "If I get beaten up for that, well, you can beat me up every day because that's the important thing to do."

With oil prices near their lowest in a decade, other Asian airlines have been raising their baggage allowances. Singapore Airlines Ltd raised maximum weights for all classes from November 2013, with first class passengers able to check in as much as 50 kilograms, while business class gets 40 kilograms and economy class 30 kilograms.

Singapore Air, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd and Thai Airways International PCL all said they have no plans to change their baggage policies.

MIXED MESSAGES

Malaysia Air, ranked 24th in the world by Sktrax, initially advised people flying to Europe that the new rule would apply from Tuesday night local time.

It then issued a further advisory suggesting restrictions would be limited to Tuesday and Wednesday flights to Paris and Amsterdam using Boeing 777s. 

Services to London using long-range Airbus Group SE A380 superjumbos could operate normally using a shorter route after the airline updated a "risk-assessment matrix" with new data, the airline said.

The next day, amid public ridicule, it dropped all the restrictions.

The abortive move probably was "not the right customer solution," said Simon Russell, managing director of Eagle Aviation Consulting in Auckland. "What airlines usually do is limit the number of passengers. Malaysia opted to take the revenue and aggregate the bags."

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