Malaysia Airlines short on pilots as demand soars, says CEO

Izham said Malaysia Airlines would give emphasis to customer satisfaction in its effort to rebuild itself. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli
Izham said Malaysia Airlines would give emphasis to customer satisfaction in its effort to rebuild itself. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

KUALA LUMPUR, July 26 — Malaysia Airlines has a unique problem: It is doing so well it has run short of pilots.

Demand has outstripped supply as there are more passengers and flights, but not enough pilots, and this has put paid to the national carrier’s revenue.

“We have been showing good traction in 2018 after a weak 2017. Steady improvement has been seen. Yield up 7 per cent from a year ago, Revenue Available Seat per Km (RASK) was up 4 per cent year-on-year (Q1 2018 vs Q1 2017).

“New routes like Surabaya and Brisbane were showing good demand with load factors averaging 75 per cent.

“We were looking at a slow and steady growth of 3-4 per cent as planned, but then the pilot shortage hit us,” its chief executive officer Izham Ismail told Malay Mail.

The pilot shortage came about after more flights were scheduled, leaving the airline with very little room for error.

A slight delay of 15 minutes due to weather can lead to a two- to three-hour delay for flights at the end of the day.

Malaysia Airlines at times did not even have stand-by pilots.

This has resulted in frequent flight delays, retiming and even cancellations, giving the impression that the airline's business was bad, when the reverse was true.

Izham pointed out there was a worldwide shortage impacting all airlines.

It is estimated that there will be a shortage of 250,000 pilots over the next 10 years in Asia Pacific alone.

“This problem has been made worse by our growth. Our extra frequencies and up-gauging due to higher demand have put more pressure on the problem.

“Pilot shortage has led to loss opportunities. An example is charter contracts we have had to forego and we have had to scale back growth which will impact full year results.

“I must acknowledge that there was some fault on our part — some mis-planning in early 2017,” said Izham.

His predecessors had cut back on the number of pilots that the airline had and slowed down the recruitments of cadets.

It has turned out to be good news for the pilots on the payroll.

Malaysia Airlines has had to increase their salary a couple of times to prevent them from being poached by other airlines.

It takes between 18 and 24 months to train new pilots and Malaysia Airlines has started this process.

The airline also acquired new aircraft which adds to the problem.

“We also acquired six lease A330-200s — opportunistic leasing at extremely competitive rates. We also got new A350-900s,” he said.

“Different aircraft types require different sets of pilots who are trained to operate specific fleets.”

The shortage of pilots who can operate the airline’s B737-800s, the dominant aircraft in the fleet, is being exacerbated by the re-training of existing B737-800 pilots to operate the new wide-body aircraft. This includes the A330and the A350.

“Proactive steps are being taken to address this issue as quickly as possible which includes merging and upgrading flights to be operated by our wide-body aircraft to help cover gaps caused by the shortage of our B737 pilots."

This means that regional routes that were serviced by the smaller B737-800 will see the usage of A330 and even A350 — a boon for passengers.

“We have also put in place an extensive pilot training programme, implemented in early 2017, alongside recruitment drives. Pilot training does, however, take time and our new cadet pilots are already starting to gradually come online.

“Alongside this, the airline is conducting recruitment drives for new pilots.

“We are working hard to deliver sustained profitability in 2019,” he said.

Izham said Malaysia Airlines would give emphasis to customer satisfaction in its effort to rebuild itself.

“Malaysian Hospitality — that is our focus and guiding principle in everything we do, it is all about the customer experience.

“We have relaunched our new lounge to reflect Malaysian heritage, introduced new food and revamped website and mobile app.

“We are all expediting our digital initiatives to set us apart from the competition. We will be rolling out several innovative apps including MHGuardian, MHFeedback and many more in the pipeline,” he added.

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