Troubled Malaysia Airlines is undergoing a complete revamp under the leadership of its new chief executive, Christoph Mueller, the former head of the Irish airline Aer Lingus. The overhaul will include shedding a third or more of its 20,000-person staff, using a smaller fleet, and possibly adopting a new name and uniform.
“It’s not a continuation of the old company in a new disguise, everything is new,” Mueller told Reuters in his first interview since taking over the airline on May 1. In some ways, Mueller is the ideal person to turn around the Asian carrier, which was already struggling with years of losses before two plane crashes last year that killed 537 passengers and crew. The airline hasn’t made a profit since 2008.
As head of Aer Lingus for five years, Mueller helped the airline compete with as well as fend off takeover bids from domestic rival Ryanair, while trying to placate striking unions. Last year, the airline reported an 18% increase in operating profit, before a one-off payment to unions.
Mueller, the first foreigner ever to lead Malaysia’s national airline, may have more trouble with union members at Malaysia Airlines, where half of the staff is represented by the Malaysian Airline System Employees Union. Some union members have told local media that they will stage a strike once the termination letters are given out within the next few weeks.
Anxiety among the staff is high. “It is a very sad period in our lives. I never thought this day would come when I first joined the airline more than two decades ago…I cannot even think about how I am going to pay for my house and car loans,” one employee told The Straits Times.
Before Aer Lingus, Mueller tried (and failed) to turn around Sabena SA before it declared bankruptcy and reinvented itself into Brussels Airlines. Analysts call him a “battle-hardened veteran,” and say he’ll need that experience as he embarks on one of the “biggest challenges” in the airline industry today.
Under the restructuring plan, Malaysia Airlines is moving assets and liabilities to another company, Malaysia Airlines BHd, that will start operating in September. Mueller said that it would take three years to make it profitable again.