Airbus A380s find new life on Malaysia Airlines’ pilgrim trips

By BLOOMBERG

LONDON • Malaysia Airlines Bhd’s Airbus SE A380s are flying full on trial services taking Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, prompting the carrier to say it will establish the operation as a new division as early as the end of this year.

The surprise success of the religious charter service provides another fillip for the double decker that won a new lease on life last week from Emirates, the plane’s biggest customer, with its first order in two years.

The Asian company has been using two of its six A380s to transport people headed to Mecca for the year- round umrah pilgrimage since November, CEO Capt Izham Ismail said in an interview. The planes will ultimately be used for the annual haj gathering, one of the world’s biggest travel events.

“I felt we needed to go to market fast,” said Ismail, who inherited the proposal when he took over as CEO two months ago. “We’ve been flying these charters daily to Jeddah or Medina and we fill them up every day.”

Airbus floated the prospect of killing the A380 if it failed to win more business for the plane from Emirates. It’s also in talks with British Airways for a follow-up and is keen to see Malaysia Airlines’ plan open up a new market.

It’s pitching a model with as many as 700 seats, up from 498. Ismail said that would have to wait until 2020, when the A380s will be out of service for maintenance, and that the current density may in any case be sufficient.

“The passengers who go to the umrah and haj are often elderly, so we can’t cram them into a tin can,” he said in London. “We can keep the current configuration and offer a product that’s superior to the current haj product. It’s a captive market, so we can move the pricing up a little bit.” — Bloomberg