Malaysia Airlines makes a bold move to differentiate itself from its competitors when it adds the Airbus A380 to its fleet, flying the aircraft from Kuala Lumpur first to London from July 1 and next to Sydney from September 25. It will not allow children under the age of 12 in economy to be seated on the upper deck.
The objective, according to the Malaysian flag carrier, is to ensure that business travellers in economy have a more restful and enjoyable trip. The airline may have been a Johnny-come-lately in acquiring the world’s largest commercial aircraft – after rivals that include Singapore Airlines (SIA), British Airways, Qantas and Emirates – but it is certainly hoping the move will stand it in good stead in the competition to even attract new customers away from other airlines. Can this really work in its favour?
Reactions from analysts are mixed, but many have questioned the wisdom of the carrier’s wisdom in enforcing the policy even though Malaysia Airlines has since last year banned infants from travelling in First Class, citing complaints by well-heeled passengers that their sleep had been disturbed by crying babies. It is not known if Malaysia Airlines has a higher incidence of infant carriage in First Class but it is fair to assume that the industry norm is fairly low, verging on rarely.
Other airlines such as Emirates, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic that thrive on the business traffic at the time too were seriously considering “adults only” cabins or flights since surveys showed that the pet peeve of a high 75% of passengers was the annoyance caused by children. While some of them had campaigned for “children-free” cabins, there was no conclusive evidence that this was a decisive factor in their choice of carriers. None of the airlines mentioned found any compelling reason to accede to their request, at least not yet.
If you had travelled via rail across the United Kingdom (UK), you would have been familiar with the “quiet cabins” on some trains, so the concept at least for the British carriers is not exactly new. Yet riding in a train and flying in a plane can be very different experiences that may not be governed by the same rules. Families that are seated apart and travelling over long distances in the air may suffer from separation anxiety, particularly since movements within the aircraft are somewhat restricted.
British Airways’ reaction then was at best neutral. It said: “We do a lot of research into what our customers want and are always looking into new ways of making their journey as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.” But Virgin said it had “no plans” to introduce sections that specifically cater for adults. Former Virgin director Paul Charles said: “It would be a bad decision by an airline to ban children. Once you did, would start banning other types of traveller? It would be a mistake.” This could develop into an ethical issue if the segregation basis is viewed as being discriminatory.
So is Malaysia Airlines making a mistake? While it may be welcome news for its so-called business travellers who find the presence of children irritating, the more pertinent question to ask is whether the initiative is premised upon the resultant dip in revenue from that specific group of business travellers or that it is aimed at attracting travellers away from its competitors.
It is fair to assume that the majority of travellers would prefer to sit away from children, but there has been no conclusive study that that would be the deciding factor in their choice of carrier. Many of them would take their chances with where they would sit, and seasoned travellers would avoid being near seats capable of holding bassinets. However, by limiting the options for families to travel together with the likelihood that they may be separated as a consequence, Malaysia Airlines may be alienating more of its customers than attracting new ones.
Other airlines in the region are unlikely to follow suit. An SIA spokesperson informed Aspire Aviation that the Singapore carrier currently has “no such policy restricting the carriage of children on our A380 aircraft. Similarly there are no restrictions on the carriage of children in Business Class cabins and on all-Business Class flights.” And, yes, infants are allowed in First Class.
However, by regulating entry into the economy class as two distinct sections, Malaysia Airlines may be legitimising eventually charging a higher rate for the “adults only” cabin on the upper deck of its A380, a de facto premium economy in the style of EVA Air and Cathay Pacific Airways, not in terms of perks that are better than the normal economy fare but peace and quiet in the absence of children. Ironically, charging a fee for “extras” somehow makes the policy look less discriminatory, considering how some airlines are already charging a fee for preferred seats with more legroom or located near the door within the same economy cabin.
Yet comparing Malaysia Airlines’ red-inked performance with that of profitable rivals such as SIA and Cathay Pacific, both airlines which are as popular with business travellers as they are with others including families with children, it would appear that Malaysia Airlines may be making a hasty move and taking a big gamble. Give it credit at least for trying, although as it restructures in present times to get back into the black, it may do well to also look at what SIA and Cathay Pacific are doing right for a start.