Down2Earth - Saving MAS starts at the top

NOT every naysayer on the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) turnaround plan is rubbing his or her hands in glee following the premature departure of Christoph Mueller, the national carrier's first foreign CEO.

Those of us who love the airline are fuming at yet another hiccup in its restructuring plans, wondering if there is any truth to market talk about Mueller's frustrations with his Khazanah bosses.

The German national credited with the rehabilitation of Aer Lingus in Ireland cited personal reasons for leaving.

While one wishes him well and hopes he can resolve this "change in his personal circumstances (as he puts it)", Mueller's urgent need to settle his private affairs provides an opportune moment to take flight from Newco – the corporate title of the new flag carrier.

However that Mueller will stay on till September begs the question as to what exactly is the nature of his personal circumstances where there seems to be a lack of urgency as he is still able to spend five months serving out his notice.

It has not been easy for Mueller, who was appointed on May 1 last year. Many thought he could do what the past five CEOs could not.

The choice of a foreigner to be the CEO of the national carrier which was once the pride of the nation and among the best in the world, did not go down well with many Malaysians. Both former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and opposition veteran Lim Kit Siang were in agreement that the choice of Mueller was a slap in the face of Malaysians since it sent the message that no locals were worthy or capable to head the fledgling airline.

Not that Mueller did not come with impressive credentials. First, unlike his predecessor Datuk Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, Mueller is an aviator. Being appointed in the midst of the nation reeling from the loss of two aircraft and 537 lives, the fact that Mueller is also an air crash survivor is not well-known.

It was reported that once he had to eject from a single-seater aircraft he was piloting and deploy his parachute before the plane crashed.

Mueller was also the head of the International Air Travel Association (IATA).

Those who supported Mueller's appointment reasoned that apart from the experience he brought, a foreigner would be detached and unaffected by the politics and lobbying that usually fester in state-run agencies and government-linked companies.

He would get the job done without having to worry about the phone calls and the demands from one Yang Berhormat or Tan Sri, or having to fill up seats at the annual general assembly of a political party.

However those who disagree opine that the overwhelming shadow of Khazanah and business as usual in Malaysia will be hard to repel.

Did Mueller succumb to the latter scenario and decide to take flight? Reportedly at a town hall meeting following the culling of 6,000 staff he lamented that the people he would like to stay have been told to go.

The MAS Recovery Plan was put together even before he was appointed, hence his task was to implement the strategy put together by those who will not be accountable for its failure.

So is Mueller taking flight before everything goes to hell in a handbasket?

Is his departure another failure by Khazanah in its attempts to rehabilitate the airline?

What of the early assurance that a local will be mentored by Mueller to take over after the latter's three-year contract ends?

Has that plan been scuttled due to his early exit?

Senior management of MAS now comprises almost entirely of European staff. Is there a serious dearth of local talent?

Since the airline hit turbulence in 2001, it has seen five changes at the top – from current chairman Tan Sri Md Nor Md Yusof to Datuk Fuad Dahlan, Datuk Seri Idris Jala, Datuk Tengku Azmil and Ahmad Jauhari.

Presumably the rapid changes of managing directors and CEOs are due to the frequent changing of the goal posts and the goalie along with it.

Ironically Khazanah itself in the 46-page MAS Recovery Plan, billed "Rebuilding a National Icon", admitted that there were four failed recovery plans.

So if MAS can see five leadership changes in 14 years, how come Khazanah has not seen any leadership transformation since 2004? Especially when it is open about its own shortcomings where MAS is concerned?

With accumulative losses of almost RM18 billion in 15 years, why are the same faces involved in the decision making of MAS turnaround plans?

Perhaps the root of MAS's problems is in Khazanah. Does it have its head in the clouds by promising a return to profitability by 2018?

One can get Richard Branson, or Emirates's Tim Clark or even Qatar Airways's Akbar Al Baker to head MAS, but if the usual suspects are holding the strings, our national airline could already be on route to a place of no return.

Terence is no aviation expert but wonders if getting low-cost experts to run a premium airline was the best move for MAS. Feedback: letters@thesundaily.com