Following the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, which is believed to have been blown out of the sky over eastern Ukraine, shares in the airline’s stock closed down 11% at the end of Friday. The airline has now said that it will offer anyone with a ticket to fly this year a refund—regardless of when it was purchased—if they call before July 24. A kind gesture for their customers, but perhaps not so good for the bottom line. Over the past five years, the airline has lost 92% of its value.
This is the second tragedy to befall the airline in the same year. In March, flight 370 went missing—and has yet to be found, with the biggest toll on the families of the victims. One family from the tiny town of Biloela, Australia, the Burrows, lost close relatives on both flights.
After a year like this, can Malaysia’s state carrier carry on? ”I can’t comprehend of anything they can do to save themselves,” aviation analyst Mohshin Aziz told Dow Jones Newswires. “In the history of aviation there’s never been an airline that had to go through two huge disasters in the span of four months, so I don’t think there’s any historical evidence that they can get out of this.”
Then there is the issue of compensation. Under the Montreal Convention, which codifies the international response to air disasters, Malaysia Airlines could be forced to pay out up to $170,000 per passenger—whether it’s found to be at fault or not. The airline has a negative cash flow, has been losing money for many years, and now the biggest shareholder in the airline, the state investment fund that has invested more than $1 billion, is reportedly looking to take the carrier private. A sale to a company seeking a toehold into the lucrative ASEAN market may be on the cards, if Malaysia’s government will allow it.
Investors may do well to remember the storied Howard Hughes-owned US carrier, TWA, which filed for bankruptcy and was bought by American in 2001, only a few years after flight 800 crashed near New York in 1996. The crash did not destroy the airline—but for a company in deep trouble, it certainly didn’t help.