The May 2015 edition of Going Places, Malaysia Airlines in flight magazine features an introduction from Mr Christoph Mueller, the airline’s new CEO. In the short message Mr Mueller talks about the “overwhelming hospitality” he has received since arriving in Malaysia two months earlier. He explains that he would like all Malaysia Airlines’ passengers to experience the same overwhelming hospitality on board MAS flights.
He goes on to talk about the “formidable culture” of Malaysia and expresses hope that MAS will leave visitors with a “wonderful experience from the heart of Asia”. He tells us he is ‘excited’ for Malaysia Airlines despite the difficult and challenging task he and his staff face in turning the carrier around and making it profitable again.
He explains that the turnaround begins with people like ‘me’ (the reader) who he calls guests. The airline will be listening carefully to the feedback from guests. Mr Mueller goes on to say that the “the key is to design products and services to create a guest experience that you will find truly valuable.” I’m not sure what the key refers to to but I presume it is to rebuilding the airline.
Mr Mueller is certainly right that the turnaround of MAS begins with the airline’s guests and in particular the frequent flyers who have supported the airline over the last 20 years. No doubt retention of guests will be at the heart of the rebranding brief sent out a few weeks ago and the RFPs for which are due at the end of this week. But he needs to steer away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to his guests because they all have very different needs and requirements for value.
As for ‘designing products and services’ that guests will find ‘truly valuable’, Mr Mueller is making the right noises although I would have liked to have seen a more specific set of ideas delivered confidently and dynamically in his first public communication to the country and those many supporters of Malaysia Airlines. For instance, an overview of what he has in mind would have given people something to start talking about and sharing on social media, generating a wave of interest, enthusiasm, anticipation and positivity. And what exactly does ‘truly valuable’ mean?
MAS is not a bad product and it’s certainly not broken. Far from it, the product and services are OK. But the trouble is, to be competitive in today’s aviation business, or for that matter any other business being OK simply isn’t enough. To be successful in the aviation business, you need to be exceptional.
On a business trip to London earlier this month, I met up with a group of Malaysians who were all long-term MAS passengers, all with Silver or Gold Enrich (The MAS frequent flyer programme) cards. But this time they had flown in on Emirates and were raving about the quality of the business class experience, the outstanding service from the crew of 13 different nationalities and their professionalism, the efficiency of the airline, the seamless integration between the business class lounge in Dubai and the A380.
But what surprised me most of all was how they waxed lyrical about the communication between the crew and the passengers. Each crew member seemed to know each passenger’s name and used it in every communication, no matter how trivial. And the crew seemed genuinely interested in each passenger. Not in an irritating, intrusive way but in a professional client/customer way.
The meal service was akin to something normally reserved for a 5 star restaurant and was designed around the individual passengers needs on that flight. Meals were served individually, by hand and not from a trolley. Two of the travellers sat next to each other. Both were asked if they would like to sleep first and have their meal later or eat first and then sleep. They felt the crew were doing everything possible to make their trip truly memorable.
The service wasn’t rushed and they all thought the announcements over the PA were delivered in a confident, calming and professional way. And when the Captain (not the chief steward) announced clearly and confidently that seat belts needed to be put on while the aircraft experienced some ‘choppy’ weather, they all felt instantly at ease. MAS does many of the things Emirates does (I believe having flown Emirates, MAS and Etihad business class to the UK in the last 5 months that Emirates is the benchmark) and many of the things it doesn’t do can be done.
The question is, will MAS be able to do them exceptionally? Will Mr Mueller be able to find enough good middle managers with the skills and commitment to motivate MAS staff to deliver an outstanding experience time and time again? Will branding investments focus on getting the organisation ‘on brand’ before launching very expensive and imminently forgettable advertising campaigns that over promise and force the airline to under deliver?
Making experiences outstanding will be key to winning back lost customers and attracting new business and not glossy advertising campaigns, a new logo or new uniforms. We all want Mr Mueller to turn the airline around and with the support of the government giving him the authority to let go of 6,000 staff and low oil prices driving down the price of aviation fuel his chances are good. But judging by where MAS is at the moment and the ability of competitors to keep raising the bar, Mr Mueller is really up against it.