Following MH370 and MH17, what now for Malaysia Airlines workers?


When the call came late on the evening of 18 July, Malaysia Airlines staff rushed to Kuala Lumpur International Airport and soon found themselves reliving a nightmare that they’d hoped to start putting behind them.

Waiting anxiously alongside colleagues for news of a flight believed to be lost, just as they had four months earlier, staff said they found it hard to believe this could be happening all over again.

There were tears and shock when reports that flight MH17 had been lost were confirmed at around 23.30 local time.

By midnight, Malaysia Airlines officials knew that the 298 passengers and crew on board were unlikely to have survived the crash.

"For something like this to happen, just four months after MH370, just when we were beginning to get on with life, it is just very difficult to take," one airline executive told Reuters in Kuala Lumpur, sobbing as he spoke.

"You can’t imagine how draining it is, how emotional it is. Everyone can’t believe this is happening again, we are going through all of the emotions once again."

The loss of the plane, believed to have been shot down over a war-torn area of Ukraine, was a devastating blow to an airline still reeling from the loss of another Boeing 777, Flight MH370, in March.

The plane’s unsolved disappearance over south-east Asia is one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history.

The two tragic events took the lives of 537 people in total, including 21 flight attendants and six pilots.


Staff support

As the airline’s staff struggle to come to terms with the losses, officials from Malaysia Airlines System Employees Union (MASEU) report that some crew members are “in shock” and too depressed to fly.

“Right now the major issue comes from some pilots and cabin crew who have been traumatised by the two respective incidents,” Jabbarullah Kadir, executive secretary of MASEU, tells Equal Times. “Quite a number of our members have approached the union asking to take unpaid and special leave.”

“Furthermore, the staff’s morale is very low and that has led them to become very unsure of what’s going to happen in the future. The current management of Malaysian Airlines and MASEU is trying to overcome the situation.”

MASEU president Ismail Nasaruddin says the two tragedies within a span of four months is something no flight crew in the world has ever experienced before.

"Some of them are sad and very depressed,” he told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur. “We have advised them the best we could in light of their rising fears, just a few months after the MH370 incident.”

Ismail said it was too early to give details of the numbers of staff unable to fly.

“We have not overcome the battle of the missing MH370, and within such a short period, this incident has taken place involving another Malaysia aircraft,” he said. “We are very sad, very depressed … it is mass murder.”

In a press statement on the MH17 crash, Gabriel Mocho, civil aviation section secretary at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) called for support for both the airline and its traumatised workers: “Malaysian Airlines and its workforce is an invaluable asset for Malaysia and the government should respond to this latest tragedy by supporting both.”

Overall, Ismail praised the efforts of Malaysia Airlines to support traumatised flight crew, who union officials say are very close.

The airline says it is offering support and counselling to employees, especially cabin crew and technical staff.

Alongside their grief, staff are dealing with concerns about job security. Industry analysts have predicted bankruptcy or, at best, drastic restructuring for the company following the disasters.

The airline was already in financial difficulties before the loss of MH370, and many analysts expect its passenger numbers to drop.

In the past, aviation disasters have pushed financially troubled airlines over the brink.

But analysts are quick to point out that there’s no historic precedent for the situation Malaysia Airlines now finds itself in, particularly with the mystery of flight MH370, making its future difficult to predict.

The now defunct Pan American World Airways was in financial trouble long before its Flight 103 was destroyed in a terrorist attack over Lockerbie, Scotland. But the attack pushed the airline towards its ultimate bankruptcy, the airline’s former CEO Tom Plaskett told CNN. The airline laid off thousands of employees before filing for bankruptcy in 1991, two years after the attack.

More recently, Asiana Airlines made huge financial losses after its Flight 214 struck a sea wall and crashed into a runway at San Francisco International Airport last year, killing three people and injuring more than 180.


Customer loyalty

So far, Malaysia Airlines customers don’t seem to have abandoned the airline. The company reported in April that there was no immediate drop in passenger numbers following the loss of flight MH370, and local media reports that many Malaysian people and businesses are rallying behind the national carrier.

“MAS has had its flag raised high and done us proud for many decades. It’s been an unlucky year for MAS to face two aviation tragedies within few months,” wrote student Qihong Lim. “I wish to extend my continuous support to MAS and will still continue to fly with MAS at every given opportunity.”

However, this public support may not last if levels of customer service are affected by low morale, experts warn, pointing out that staff well-being will be crucial to the survival of Malaysia Airlines.

“Staff are fundamental to an airline in terms of safety and also in terms of customer service,” says Professor Greg Bamber, an Australian expert in international aviation staffing.

“When staff feel alienated, when they have low morale, when there’s uncertainty about their future job security and so on, it’s very difficult for them to give great customer service.”

He says staff morale is “typically at a low level already” at Malaysia Airlines, as well as at many other legacy airlines worldwide, following cuts to salaries, benefits and jobs.

“Morale has not been at a high level,” he said, “And obviously there’s a great deal of concern among Malaysia Airlines staff.”

While the future looks uncertain for the airline and its staff, their union is also “facing crisis” with the current leadership of Malaysia Airlines, Kadir says.

“MASEU has approached our prime minister and proposed that the upper management be completely overhauled to inject new blood into the company. A new administrative panel needs to take charge,” he says.

“If this initiative goes through then we can start a new business plan and have a new direction for our national airline.”