On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Let Idris Jala finish his mission at MAS

IT’S always easy to point fingers at someone for a screw-up. In this case, it’s Senator Tajulurus Mohd Zain of the Merbok Umno division who demanded the sacking of Malaysia Airlines managing director Datuk Idris Jala for a series of flight delays and cancellations recently.  

Some politicians, who assume they are very important, are fuming because they have been affected by these delays and the person they hold responsible is the MAS chief executive officer. 

There is no doubt that there are internal problems in the national airline, probably much more than what has been admitted by Idris himself. But the man must be credited for doing his job – to cut losses, make profits for MAS and retain the airline’s brand name. 

He has introduced the private sector culture into the once ailing airline including having the appraisal system for its 19,500 staff. This has never been done since the airline was set up but it is a common, if not mandatory practice, in private companies.  

There has to be some yardstick to measure a worker’s productivity and performance but word is that there is resistance. Needless to say, an automatic increment or promotion will affect the operating costs of the airline. 

Last week, Tajulurus, who is a member of the Senators’ Club, called for Idris’ dismissal to prevent a further “sliding of services” by the national carrier. 

MAS, he said, was fast losing its credibility and its services was regressing from “bad to worse,” adding that Idris should leave and MAS was bogged down with internal problems.  

Tajulurus has chosen to overlook some basic facts – Idris has only been on the helm for a little over one-and-a-half years, taking a job which nobody wanted as the balance sheet of the company read like a horror book.  

Inheriting a mountain of problems, Idris has slowly built up the airline. The task has been difficult, particularly when politicians interfere, but to his credit, Idris has chosen to be forward-looking, refusing to answer questions from reporters who often attempt to dig for information about the company’s scandalous past. 

From flying to unprofitable destinations, in the name of South-South co-operation, to overpriced nasi lemak, to some members of the royalty who refused to pay for their tickets and overweight baggage, Idris has tried to reduce the obstacles one by one, fully aware that he is stepping on sensitive areas. 

In just a year after Idris took over, MAS returned a first-quarter 2007 profit of RM133mil. It’s a feat, really. 

Tajulurus may be unhappy but OSK Investment Research, for example, retained its “buy” call for MAS on July 17 despite the bad press involving delays blamed on technical glitches, bad weather and problems with a new computer system. 

In short, Idris has tried to avoid political and commercial turbulences, which Malaysians are familiar with, and at the same time, show other CEOs he can make MAS fly again, yielding positive results. 

Malaysians are also looking forward to its low-cost subsidiary, Firefly, which is expected to begin operate flights from Subang and Senai to Ipoh. 

OSK also reported that “we maintain our buy call on expectations of a code-sharing agreement with a Chinese airline which will help bolster connectivity starting in 2008,” it said. 

There are challenges ahead for MAS – by Jan 1, 2009, Asean would have opened up its skies, making the airline industry highly deregulated – that means more traffic rights to airlines with the possibility of supply outstripping demand.  

Already, there are 400 new planes this year and another 500 new ones next year from Middle East and India, based on Boeing and Airbus’ order bookings. 

Idris has no choice except to drive towards a more performance-based culture, as he said in a recent interview. He has been given the mandate and he should use it well, never mind what the politicians want to say. 

But Idris also needs to manage its switch-over to the new IT system better as no passenger would want to stand at the check-in counter for 30 minutes to get a boarding pass and then wait for another two hours before flying off because of a delay.  

Worse, there have been cases of passengers being stranded for days. 

More importantly, he must take seriously the talk of an “unofficial go-slow” involving alleged discontent over its shares option and bonuses. His hands are clearly full as he has 14 unions to deal with, a nightmare no other CEO has to tackle. 

Clearly, MAS cannot afford flight delays, irrespective of the causes, or purported cases of over-booking, which can be regarded as an economic sabotage to the Government’s Visit Malaysia 2007. 

Still, it is no surprise that MAS won the “World’s Best Cabin Staff” award at the World Airlines Award 2007, which involved an 11-month survey. 

The smiles of our MAS crew and the nasi lemak that awaits Malaysians after being away from home have long made the national carrier a winner.  

For Jala and his staff, it also means keeping the company profitable and more important, to fly on time.