Malaysia Airlines must invest in delivering value not new taglines

At the end of 2019 I wrote a blog post comparing the business class offerings of Malaysia Airlines, Emirates & Qatar. You can read the full review here. The purpose of the review was to highlight just how difficult it is for Malaysia Airlines to try and rescue its market share, especially in the premium business class segment.

Covid-19 has of course changed the aviation business, probably for ever. But when things do get back to some sense of normal, you can be sure the battle for business class will continue. If Malaysia Airlines continues to offer such basic service in premium class, it will never recover its former glory.

My piece generated a few comments, one from a Malaysian called Derek Ow. I’ve reproduced his comments (in red below) and have included my reply to certain comments where I think I can add further value.

I have quite mixed feelings about your review especially in your review of Malaysia Airlines. But let me start with the points I agree with.

1) I agree that the Golden Lounge isn’t the best and that it could be better. But then again, such preferences are very subjective. But the Emirates lounge does indeed set a new level for airlines to follow.

The Emirates and Qatar lounges are the benchmark by which any business class passenger traveling to Malaysia, the region or onto Australia & New Zealand, will judge other airlines. It’s not that there’s much wrong with the Golden Lounge – it’s certainly functional – but these days, that’s enough to run a business but unlikely to generate new sales.

2) The nuts could have been served in a more premium way considering that they are served in a similar fashion in Economy Class.

Such a simple touchpoint, on it’s own means very little. But once it’s put in the competitor context, it makes the Malaysia Airlines brand seem second rate, lazy even.

3) You voiced your concern to a senior attendant in the MAS flight. That’s an exemplary move.

4) WiFi should have been offered to Business Class passengers at either a lower rate or be made complimentary altogether in MAS.

WiFi on planes tends to be so bad that charging for it cannot have any benefits except financial ones yet they will leave a negative perception of the carrier in the mind of the business class passenger – I had to pay for WiFi on MAS and it was crap. Not a good outcome. Better not to charge for it and explain that it will be patchy at best.

5) In-flight entertainment in MAS is quite horrendous and most of the time, they’re outdated and offer little to no programs that appeal to non-Malaysians.

6) Emirates does undoubtedly lead in terms of service. Despite MAS being my airline of choice, objectively Emirates is a winner considering the tiny details the staff pay attention to. And yes, having a limousine is a colossal advantage over the other 2 airlines.

Now onto points I strongly disagree with:

1) You mentioned of how security checks are carried out at the departure gate. I personally applaud the Malaysian authorities for practicing such a protocol as they ensure that between the immigration section after checking in and pre-boarding, there is little to no chance someone could have brought in a forbidden item while at the gates. Let’s not forget that criminals are sophisticated and so refined to a point where they can placed forbidden items (while highly unlikely, it is still possible) on your clothing or even swap carry-in bags while you wait for your flight if you are not paying close attention to your belongings. So I take this as the authorities minimising the chances of any potential hazards no matter how minor making their way into the flights.

2) Honestly, the biscuits still being in the wrapper when served doesn’t bother me a single bit. I don’t even understand why that should even be a question on how exclusive it is.

I don’t think anyone is bothered by it but it hardly communicates a sophisticated experience. You won’t find a high end restaurant serving biscuits in wrappers. It’s just tacky and lacks sophistication.

3) While I am aware that airlines must cater to all tastes, Malaysia Airlines had always branded themselves with ‘Malaysian Hospitality’. Perhaps that a difference in our methods of reviewing but I personally review flights based on how the respective airlines brand themselves. So based on the types of hard products served (especially the Nescafe), I can boldly say that MAS is adhering to their philosophy that is ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ and that there isn’t much fault in that. We’d love for you to experience what we Malaysians enjoy in general. But it is understandable that you may prefer Western tastes.

Malaysian Hospitality is a claim, a tagline, nothing more. This old fashioned approach to branding, where you try and convince the public of something through a communications campaign is irrelevant in the global economy of today where consumers not companies define brands. As for experiences what Malaysians enjoy, that’s not the point of a carrier. And it’s nothing to do with my personal tastes.

I know Malaysian’s like Nescafe but that’s a lifestyle choice driven by indolence and speed not quality. But my point is not about serving Nescafe, that’s fine for Malaysians (although I think it’s really sad because Malaysia has some great home grown coffee and the carrier could support those small businesses by offering their coffees) but the typical international business class passenger does not want to drink Nescafe.

If you want to attract those international travellers and their foreign currency, you need to be able to offer as good as or even a better experience than the other carriers. Offering the cheapest, nastiest coffee in the market to your business class passengers is not the way to do that.

4) I find it unfair to compare airlines in different leagues, serving different communities with different philosophies in terms of service by the same universal benchmark unless it is about the general quality of service which I think you didn’t highlight
that much from an objective standpoint when it came to the in-flight service. It was mostly about fulfilling your personal taste which again, is a very subjective topic. But kudos for being quite objective when it comes to the post flight section.

Malaysia Airlines is in direct competition with Emirates and Qatar. And also BA, Etihad, Oman Air and anyone else who flies the same routes. Once again, it’s not about my personal taste. Cabin crew pushing a trolley down the business class aisle, emptying uneaten food into a garbage back is not high class. Fact. Nothing to do with my personal taste.

And as I keep saying, it’s not that Malaysia Airlines is bad, it’s that everyone else has got so much better. In my opinion, Malaysia Airlines gets the job done. If you simply want to fly from A to B then fine choose Malaysia Airlines but if you want outstanding value for money, then fly the other two because they’ve raised the bar to a new level.

Some of my points can be biased but I’d like to make it clear I am in no way shooting down the entire review since I think it is quite well-done. Just that I didn’t agree on some ways you criticised MAS. Hopefully you will return to Malaysia again someday! Cheers!

My posts/comments/responses/observations are based on nearly 40 years experience of working with brands from both a brand consulting perspective but also as a consumer who works bloody hard for his salary and doesn’t see why he should give his hard earned money to any business that doesn’t provide value.

There is so much competition out there for every product or service that simply going through the motions, as so many businesses do these days is not good enough. I don’t have to accept second best and I won’t.

Successful branding is all about details. Especially in such a brutally competitive space as the aviation business. And contrary to your suggestion that I’m comparing airlines in different leagues, well I’m not. Qatar and Emirates, as well as Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, Oman Air and Etihad are all competitors of MAB because they fly routes MAB flies. And in business class, Qatar and Emirates are setting the business class benchmark for flights in and out of Asia. And one way they are doing this is by paying attention to the details.

Also, as a brand consultant, I can tell you that Malaysia Airlines has wasted millions of dollars trying to position the MH concept in consumers minds. The idea of the tagline to drive a brand is outdated and irrelevant. Whatever happened to ‘Fly Malaysia’ launched last year?

Finally, I’m not criticising Malaysia Airlines, I’m providing feedback for them to improve. Happy flying!