Which is the best business class from Kuala Lumpur to London? Malaysia Airlines vs Qatar Airways vs Emirates compared

According to the Skytrax world airlines awards for 2019, Qatar is the best carrier in the world, Emirates is 5th and Malaysia Airlines is 36.

The Skytrax awards are based on the responses of 21 million participants from 100 nationalities. It is touted as the largest annual airline passenger satisfaction survey in the world.

I have a number of issues with satisfaction surveys, the primary one being that they don’t really provide any actionable insights. J.D. Power, a research company carries out an annual satisfaction survey of US airlines and their 2019 survey shows travellers are more satisfied than ever with airlines.

Yet high levels of satisfaction don’t translate into increased profitability as airline stocks underperform most markets, mainly because as capacity continues to grow, prices continue to fall.

And many of those surveyed probably travel once a year in economy. Business class passengers’ account for only 5.4% of international travel, yet are responsible for 30% of airline revenues. On some flights business class passengers account for 75% of profits.

Little wonder then that Malaysia airlines, Qatar Airways and Emirates are going all out to attract premium class passengers as we head into the lucrative end of the year holiday season. But which one of them flying to the UK deserves your hard earned money?

We compare the business class offerings of these three of the main carriers.

Online airline booking experience
If you want an easy to navigate, seamless experience with an online booking engine that is clear and transparent with an intuitive interface then Emirates clinches this important part of the process as all the information is clearly laid out, allowing you to make changes without too much effort or repetition.

The Qatar Airways sites is easy to navigate although the font is a bit small. They lose a point for the outrageous ‘no show’ penalties while Malaysia Airlines loses a point for the limited number of flights offered but wins it back for being the only one to offer direct flights, shaving at least 3 hours off the journey time.
Emirates 4. Qatar 3. Malaysia 4.

Check in at Kuala Lumpur International Airport
There’s nothing to choose between the three, which is a massive lost opportunity for MAS because KLIA is its home airport and should be used to really make a powerful first impression.

Check in staff for all three carriers also need to be trained to have more enthusiasm for their jobs and be constantly reminded they represent the brand at the start of the relationship with passengers.

It may be a process for them but it isn’t for the brand or the customer. It’s a key touch point in the relationship building process and shouldn’t be underestimated, especially by Malaysia Airlines.
Emirates 3. Qatar 3. Malaysia 2.

Emirates, Qatar Airways & MAS lounges at KLIA
All three lounges are on the ‘mezzanine’ level at KLIA and are all harder to find than they should be, especially the Plaza premium lounge. This is not unique to KLIA as most airports appear to hide their lounges.

The Malaysia airlines lounge at KLIA

When flying Qatar and Emirates I took the early morning flights that left around 0200hrs. Qatar doesn’t have its own lounge at KLIA so uses the Plaza Premium lounge. Which is anything but premium.

From an experiential branding perspective, this is a massive fail on the part of Qatar Airways. I don’t know why they haven’t invested in their own lounges, not just at KLIA but at other airports around the world.

The Emirates lounge at KLIA is small & intimate

Emirates lounge is small and intimate with a limited but superior range of hot and cold foods and beverages including premium non vintage champagnes. The lighting is calm and the environment relaxing. Staff are attentive and knowledgeable.

Understandably the MAS lounge is the largest but it wasn’t the most impressive. The first thing that hits you is the smell. It’s the unmistakable smell of Malaysian food.

It reminded me of walking into a food court. Nothing wrong with that perhaps but the Emirates lounge in Dubai doesn’t smell of Mandi while the Qatar Airways lounge at Doha don’t smell of Machbus.

While some business class lounges around the world are creating daylight boosting zones, ‘Hue lighting’ rooms and amber or blue lighting throughout, The Malaysia Airlines lounge at KLIA was rather dull and uninspiring.
Emirates 4. Qatar 1. Malaysia 2.

Lounge to gate experience at KLIA
Walking from all the lounges to the respective gates should be straight forward but it isn’t due to a lack of effective way finding. While this isn’t the fault of the carriers, they should be able to influence the airport operator. Walking out of the Malaysia Airlines lounge, there is no sign directing you where to go or even how to get down to the ground floor.

The main security checks for all flights are at the departure gates. I think this is unique to KLIA and absolutely bonkers. At Dubai, Doha and Heathrow, by this stage it’s just a passport check.

So as a business class passenger on the national airline you queue with everyone else. This should be at an earlier stage of the journey where there are fast track lanes for business class passengers.

National carriers need to leverage every opportunity they can and home advantage is supposed to work for them, not against them. Malaysia Airlines really needs to get on top of this by working with stakeholders such as Malaysia Airports to create a memorable experience, for the right reasons. Malaysia Airlines loses another point here because KLIA is its home airport.
Emirates 3. Qatar 3. Malaysia 2.

Business class environment on MAS, Qatar and Emirates
My Emirates flight was a Boing 777 while the Qatar flight was an Airbus A330 and the MAS flight an Airbus A350. So not exactly ‘apples to apples’ but close enough.

Emirates business class is bling central. It’s shiny, bright with huge TV screens and thousands of movies, TV shows, games, flight information and more. It’s world class and has won numerous awards.

The Qatar cabin is less ostentatious and a little more refined with equally impressive TVs and movies, TV shows, games and flight information. It’s also won many awards especially with Skytrax.

The Malaysian Airlines cabin is functional. It’s more Toyota than the Porsche of the others. The TV is smaller, of poorer quality and there are less new movies. Overall entertainment options are significantly less than the others.

I’m not comparing seats because that would only make sense if I compared exactly the same seat on each aircraft.

Wifi is free on Emirates and Qatar and costs US$2 – US$25 on MAS, depending on the package. Bearing in mind the quality of Wifi on flights is still patchy, charging business class passengers is not a good idea and MAS would be better offering it free.
Emirates 4. Qatar 4. Malaysia 2.

Comparing inflight service on MAS with Qatar Airways & Emirates
I’ll focus on key experiential points here and not do a food review! The mix of passengers on all the carriers was essentially the same – Westerners, Arabs, Malaysians and a mix of others so they need to cater to all tastes.

Order a pre meal drink on Emirates or Qatar and it’s served together with a variety of warmed premium nuts in a bowl.

Pre meal nuts on MAS
Pre meal nuts on Emirates
Pre meal nuts on Qatar Airways

On MAS the nuts are the same as economy class and are served in the bag. Another bag of nut mix is also served the contents of which was a serious disappointment.

MAS does provide two choices of nuts but the presentation is weak

On Emirates and Qatar, every pre dinner drink order was a personal event and served by a ‘waiter’. I saw a number of passengers order cocktails, champagne and other drinks and the glassware is elegant and the whole experience is similar to a 5 star hotel cocktail bar.

The pre dinner experience on MAS is functional. It isn’t bad, it’s just not in the same league as the competition but it is competing with them for the same passengers so it really needs to be.

While the food is comparable, MAS really lets itself down with the way it serves the food. Emirates and Qatar prepare meals in the galley and serve them individually, MAS pushes the food trolley along the aisle, like in economy.

I was sitting in the back row so had to put up with the trolley clanking every time it went over a ‘lip’ on the floor next to me.

Oh, and on the MAS drinks trolley were some heavily flavoured and hugely sweet ‘juice drinks’ popular in Malaysia and other parts of SE Asia but not really anywhere else.

Watching MAS cabin crew peel back the seal on one of those containers didn’t make me feel like I was in an exclusive cabin. Pedantic perhaps but paying attention to these little things is what differentiates great brands from the rest.

MAS did deliver the main course personally so I didn’t have to put up with the trolley!

MAS losses a point over its coffee. The world loves good coffee. Arabs have been drinking coffee since the 15th century. Europeans have had a coffee culture for 400 years. There are 700 Starbucks stores in South East Asia, 140 of them in Malaysia. 75% of Australians drink fresh coffee every day.

Order a coffee on Emirates and you’ll receive a freshly brewed mug of Ethiopia’s finest beans. Same on Qatar, on MAS it’s Nescafe. Now I know Malaysians like Nescafe but the typical international business traveller from the East or West is more likely to enjoy a freshly brewed cup of java.

At the end of the meal on MAS, out came that bloody trolley again. And this time there was a rubbish bag on top and as the steward cleared plates, he emptied left over food and rubbish into the bag. Sorry but that’s simply not good enough on business class and another point lost.

Clearing plates on MAS business class

All three offer a ‘mattress’. Qatar gets a special mention for providing The White Company pajamas. I didn’t use them but I took them home!

Like I say, it’s not that MAS business class is bad, it’s just that the other carriers have raised the bar when it comes to service. So it’s inevitable passengers will compare experiences.
Emirates 4. Qatar 5. Malaysia 2.

Cabin crew attitude on MAS, Emirates & Qatar Airways
Cabin crew are some of the most underrated and under appreciated people in the aviation business. They need a wide variety of skills. They need to be professional yet friendly, polite and caring, have great communication and customer service skills while at the same time an empathetic nature.

They need to be flexible enough to deal with multiple cultures, have high levels of tolerance, be organized, firm and calm while managing multiple activities and all at 38,000 feet!

Little wonder then that cabin crew can make or break an airline brand. And it takes real talent to become good cabin crew. Asians have a natural charm and historically, Asian carriers have led the world in providing memorable experiences and it’s no surprise that Emirates and Qatar hire mostly Asian cabin crew from at least 15 Asian countries.

Emirates cabin crew lead the field in terms of professionalism. They are attentive and yet unobtrusive. The crew member looking after me introduced herself at the start of the flight and made herself visible without interrupting me. She made me feel special and important.

The service, personalization and ‘nothing is too difficult’ attitude was bang on the money.

There isn’t much to choose from between the Qatar cabin crew and Emirates, perhaps a little more refined but really nothing much in it.

The cheese platter on MAS. Would it be more exclusive to serve the biscuits out of the wrapper?
Presentation of the Emirates cheese platter is very different to Malaysia Airlines

MAS staff were professional and attentive if a little hurried. I felt they wanted to get the meal over with while the others seemed to actually enjoy their work.

When I complained about not being able to have a proper cup of coffee on MAS, the crew member – who was senior and obviously experienced – dealt with me sincerely, sympathetically and professionally.
Emirates 5. Qatar 4. Malaysia 4.

Arrival in London
Most airlines seem to be happy to be rid of you the moment you leave the aircraft. However, flying Emirates business class entitles you to a limousine to any destination within about 70 miles of Heathrow or Gatwick.

This limousine option is outstanding value and ensures the last leg of the journey leaves a lasting, positive impression. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve mentioned this service to people. Neither MAS or Qatar offer a limousine and for some I know it’s a deal breaker.
Emirates 3. Qatar 0. Malaysia 0.

The post experience experience
None of the airlines try to build a personal relationship with you. I was travelling Qatar for the first time and yet there was a lack of personalisation in follow up communications. It was my first flight to London on MAS for about 5 years and I had mentioned it on social media but again, no attempt was made to build rapport with me although I was sent an email asking me to complete a questionnaire. Emirates carpet bombs me with numerous emails containing special offers but doesn’t do anything to build rapport with me. This a missed opportunity for all the airlines.
Emirates 0. Qatar 0. Malaysia 0.

The Verdict
Emirates 30/45
Qatar 23/45
Malaysia 18/45

Malaysia Airlines comes in a distant third and that’s a pity because in the mid 1980s, before The Emirates or Qatar even had their own airlines, three airlines – Singapore Air, Cathay Pacific and Malaysia Airlines – invested heavily in their people to make the experience of flying with them memorable.

The contents of the MAS business class toiletry bag 3 years ago
The Malaysia Airlines business class toiletry bag is a lot better today.

It worked and those airlines became the ‘poster boys’ of the commercial aviation business.

MAS began to lose sight of what it is in the 1990s and stumbled along until the twin tragedies of 2014. In the months and years after 2014, costs were slashed and it became nothing more than a low cost carrier masquerading as a national airline.

There is no doubt that it has made significant headway since those dark days but it still has a long way to go. To make the transition, management has to understand they are not selling flights they are selling experiences.

The Emirates toiletry bag is well thought out with brands that complement the offering.

Looking at the MAS staff behave, my gut feeling is they are trying their best but the MAS training is inadequate in the face of such dynamic competition. And how the management react to the recent FAA ruling will be key to the next stage of the carriers evolution.

Splitting Emirates and Qatar isn’t easy. Qatar’s rise as a global carrier of repute has been meteoric and it is winning awards almost every day. Loads out of Kuala Lumpur are impressive but it isn’t investing as heavily in the experience as Emirates and that’s why it came in second.

Emirates is the benchmark for all airlines. The crew really seems to be in touch with the company values and living those values on board. Having said that, I hear there are rumblings of discontent amongst frequent flyers.

Emirates has undoubtedly reached the top but in many ways, that’s the easy part. Staying there and continually improving will be tough, especially if competitors up their game.

Emirates is a clear winner.

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Communication is key to a successful Malaysia Airlines rebrand

Flying into Kuching this morning on Malaysia Airlines​ the haze was so bad the pilot aborted the landing and went around again. The same thing happened last week. The haze isn’t MAS MAB fault but it has a significant impact on its brand.

Last week, the pilot came on the PA and explained the problem, reassuring everyone with his confidence and authority. This time the flight deck was silent. So we the passengers are sitting there wondering why the landing was aborted.

Without any information and aware of the carriers recent issues, we start asking ourselves, “Is there a problem with the aircraft?” or “Perhaps the airport is closed?” In that case, “Do we have enough fuel to go elsewhere?” “Are the pilot and co-pilot ill or even conscious?” An intimidating situation such as this one can have a negative effect on the brand. Yet at the same time, it can be part of the rebranding process.

It’s the little things that make or break a brand. Especially one that is already broken. A simple 30 second explanation was all that was needed to calm everyone down and earn a little bit of respect. Communication is a key part of branding. Successful brands have an emotional connection with consumers.

MAB has a credibility problem and that credibility problem needs to be fixed. One of the problems is the lack of an emotional connection. How can consumers connect with a brand that doesn’t communicate? If there is no connection the rebrand will fail. It certainly won’t be fixed with pressing the flesh, a new name, new livery, new advertising and a new logo.

It’ll be fixed by creating an emotional connection with customers and delivering economic, experiential and emotional value to those consumers.

Where is the new Malaysia Airlines brand?

I was under the impression that September 1st 2015 was the planned date for the launch of the Malaysia Airlines System (MAS) rebrand. As far as I can see, all that has happened is the name has been changed to Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB).

To launch the new company, MAB CEO Christoph Mueller led a team of senior managers around Kuala Lumpur international airport (KLIA) greeting passengers, handing out teddy bears and giving away a pair of business class tickets to Melbourne. This is a nice if old fashioned way of introducing a new product and the internet means these cute if short lived PR tactics can be leveraged online and potentially taken up by users across the ecosystem.

Malaysia Airlines CEO greeting passengers on the first day of the new company Pic credit: NSTP/Aizuddin Saad
Malaysia Airlines CEO greeting passengers on the first day of the new company Pic credit: NSTP/Aizuddin Saad

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any reference to the airport visit on the Malaysia Airlines Facebook page. Not even a reference to the free tickets to Melbourne. Perhaps I missed it or the airline missed an opportunity to get some valuable positive earned media.

In conjunction with the launch of the new company, the CEO stated “We are very excited to welcome today, the start of our new company. We have been working hard for the past months to ensure a smooth and successful transition and we would like to thank our customers and airline partners for their continued support during this period.”

Interestingly, he added, “the new company was looking forward to enhancing its customer in-flight experiences and give them more reason to visit Malaysia.”

Although his comment suggests he’s more interested in new recreational customers than existing ones and visitors to Malaysia rather than citizens of Malayisa, it’s a reassuring place to start because the experiences (at all touchpoints and not just in-flight) are key to building a successful brand and not advertising, PR, cute PR gimmicks and corporate driven messages pushed out across all media.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why MAS failed. The company thought it could spend more than a RM1 billion (US$400 million) in the years leading up to 2014 and pass that off as brand building whilst cutting costs that impacted every stage of the experience.

When a crisis hit, the brand was unable to deliver on promises it had made. In addition to gross mismanagement, failures at every touchpoint, lack of appreciation of the importance of existing customers and an inability to engage stakeholders, constituents and customers all contributed to the destruction of the once mighty brand.

So Mueller’s comment about improving the customer experience is good to hear. But I have to say I’m a little skeptical and here’s why. Last week I flew business class to Kuching on MAS and I was shocked at how old the aircraft was. Seats in business class were falling apart as the image below shows. Normally MAS uses new 737s on this sector so I can only hope the new aircraft have been taken out of service for the application of a new MAB livery.

A week before the launch of the new Malaysia Airlines, domestic business class is ready for the upgrade!
A week before the launch of the new Malaysia Airlines, domestic business class is ready for the upgrade!

The week before the trip above, I flew business class again to Kuching and 10 minutes out from Kuching the familiar alert sound of an incoming text message rang across the cabin. Then another and another. I figured someone in business class had turned on their phone whilst we were on our final approach.

I looked at the already seated stewardess who looked away in embarrassment. At least another 2 messages came in before we landed. When the stewardess got up to close the curtain I asked her if she was going to say anything. She replied yes and then went and hid in the galley.

A quick search online about the use of phones in flight throws up plenty of references. This is a quote from a Directorate General Civil Aviation (DGCA) report dated 2010 that refers specifically to the final approach: “Safety information internationally exchanged reveals specific cases where use of mobile telephones by passengers inside the aircraft cabin has caused erratic performance of aircraft airborne equipment leading to serious safety hazards during the flight. Typical instances include automatic disengagement of the autopilot at an altitude of 400 feet above ground level during an auto pilot assisted approach.”

Boeing the manufacturer of the aircraft I was travelling on has in the past written to all operators to warn of “the adverse effects of electromagnetic emissions on control, navigation and communications systems. Boeing is concerned that portable electronic devices carried by passengers on aircraft do not meet the stringent electromagnetic emission standards imposed on the certified airborne equipment used on its aircraft.”

As the passengers left the cabin the stewardess didn’t say anything. I was disappointed and explained to her as far as I was concerned, she was the boss of that cabin and if someone broke the law she should do something about it. She just looked at me blankly.

The last throw of the dice for the national carrier of Malaysia, a country that desperately needs some good news
The last throw of the dice for the national carrier of Malaysia, a country that desperately needs some good news

So what’s this got to do with branding? Well first of all, the MAS brand is toxic at the moment and especially when it comes to matters of safety. And a new name or identity or logo or advertising campaign won’t change that.

What will change that are examples and experiences, especially those related to safety. And most of those experiences will involve the ground staff or cabin crew. So any rebranding should have started with a brand audit to identify that the MAS crew was in desperate need of training to get them up to speed with dealing with difficult customers.

If the stewardess had been retrained to represent the new brand, she would have had the skill and confidence to take charge of that cabin and seized the opportunity to show to half a dozen leading VIPs, businessmen and me that this was a new era for the brand. That it had a zero tolerance to matters of safety and breaking international law, that the crew is competent, knowledgeable and confident and the safety of the passengers, crew and reputation of the airline is paramount.

Meanwhile on September 3rd 2015, The Malay Mail carried a story about a Malaysia Airlines jet making an unscheduled stop in India because the lavatories on the plane weren’t working. Now I know that this sort of malfunction can happen to any airline anytime but the new national carrier of Malaysia isn’t any airline, not at the moment anyway. These maintenance issues, common and accepted generally will be seen as a reflection of the carriers lack of a maintenance culture and the inevitable question will be, “If they can’t fix the lavatories, what else is broken?”

The Malaysia Airlines Facebook page is bursting with negative comments from frustrated customers made to wait over 2 hours in queues at KLIA, wait days for the return of lost luggage or unprofessional customer service staff. When I checked in recently, I was told by a duty manager that 40% of staff scheduled to be on duty that morning didn’t show up for work.

Even today, four days after the launch of the new firm complaints are coming in about service at the business class lounge at the carriers home airport KLIA.

Has anything been done to improve the Malaysia Airlines experience?
Has anything been done to improve the Malaysia Airlines experience?

The chances of a company surviving a disaster are small, the chances of surviving two are practically impossible. Little wonder then that Malaysia Airlines passenger numbers are down over a million in the first six months of this year.

The restructuring of the company was a necessity. This rebrand is the last throw of the dice for the national carrier of Malaysia, a country that desperately needs some good news.

As a branding professional and a loyal customer of Malaysia Airlines for over 20 years, my expectations of the rebrand go way beyond the name, the logo, the identity and promises made by the CEO that staff are not trained to deliver on.

I don’t know what has happened to the rebrand but my expectations are an end-to-end rebrand that will see Malaysia’s national carrier back where it belongs, at the top of it’s game. I genuinely hope the people tasked with rebranding the carrier, know what they are doing. Because if they don’t, Malaysia Airlines will fail.