MIAMI — Regulators in Malaysia shut down Rayani Air after a number of safety regulation violations and economic concerns about the airline’s viability. The airline was suspended earlier in the year and received lots of bad press.
Rayani Air was Malaysia’s first Islamic-compliant airline and launched in December. No alcohol or pork was served on board, and prayers were said before takeoff. Muslim flight attendants wore a hijab and non-Muslim crew members were forbidden from wearing revealing clothing.
From a business standpoint, a full-service Islamic-compliant airline makes sense in Malaysia, where the majority of the population is Muslim. Their launch received plenty of attention for the uniqueness of being an Islamic-compliant airline. Some speculated if the airline could eventually compete with Malaysia Airlines.
Rayani Air started off small, only offering domestic flights within Malaysia on its two Boeing 737-400s. The two airplanes previously belonged to Malaysia Airlines. Two more airplanes were on order, yet they never came to fruition.
The fledgling airline suffered setbacks soon after its start. Strikes, safety violations, and heightened scrutiny from Malaysia regulators after two high-profile crashes in 2014 were factors that led to the airline’s closure.
After the airline’s suspension earlier in 2016, Malaysian authorities conducted an audit of Rayani Air before reaching the decision to prohibit the airline from operating. Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) announced their verdict in a statement released on June 13:
“The DCA and the Ministry of Transport is working closely with the Malaysian Aviation Commission (MAVCOM) in this matter as safety and security of the aviation industry is of paramount importance.”
Problems started soon after the airline’s December launch. In March, more than 200 passengers were stranded when a flight was cancelled because of a broken windshield in the cockpit. Curiously, the airline said in a statement it was investigating “whether [the broken windshield] is an act of sabotage or not.” Customers were offered a full refund, yet Rayani Air’s problems were only beginning.
In March, flights were regularly delayed or cancelled with little notice and no replacement flights offered. Customers were understandably irked, and politicians began to scrutinize the airline. It was discovered that the airline was issuing handwritten tickets, and it was seen as a major safety violation because it’s easy to forge a handwritten ticket.
Things got worse in the following month when the pilots went on strike due to concerns over unspecified “technical issues.” This left Rayani Air scrambling, and it reportedly asked the authorities to suspend its services in an effort to restructure and re-launch the airline. Instead, authorities further investigated and decided to keep the airline closed for good.
Scrutiny in Malaysia
You can’t fault the aviation authorities in Malaysia for going as far as they did. Airline regulations are strict for a reason, as the slightest violations can be quite dangerous.
International manufacturing regulations are especially strict, and countries must ensure that airlines are properly caring for the planes and the customers.
A violation here or there isn’t enough to shutter an airline company, but the number of incidents at Rayana Air in less than half a year of operation was especially egregious.
Malaysia is especially sensitive to negative aviation-related news after the two tragic Malaysia Airlines crashes of 2014, and it has taken an increasingly hands-on approach to the industry.
The infamous Flight 370 that mysteriously crashed in March 2014 was the cause of endless scrutiny on a 24-hour news cycle. A few months later, the downing of Flight MH17 by a missile over Ukraine almost caused the closure of Malaysia’s national airline. A total of more than 500 people were tragically killed in the crashes.
In light of declining business from those tragedies, Malaysia Airlines was nationalized in order to keep the business afloat. The cost of nationalization was enormous, but the measures were necessary with Malaysia Airlines rapidly going through their cash reserves. A total rebranding of the airline was considered, but now appears to be on hold.
It’s apparent that Malaysia is invested in its airline industry, both literally and figuratively. By being closely involved, it’s keeping a stern eye on the industry to ensure no events give it negative international attention. The reasons for closing the airline are legitimate, yet it’s safe to say that past tragedies may influence the decision.
Southeast Asia is a rapidly growing tourist destination, and the airline industry is growing equally as fast. And fast growth comes with problems.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) downgraded the safety rating for all of Thailand last year, putting the tourist hot spot on par with Bangladesh in terms of safety.
For the region’s second-richest country in total GDP to be bumped down is troubling. The capital Bangkok is the second most-visited city on the planet, and it appears there are no signs of that growth slowing down.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the safety problem could be worse than it seems as non-fatal accidents are underreported in the region. Considering more flights departed from Asia than Europe from 2009 to 2013 (39.2 million vs. 35.7 million), the region can’t afford to have lax safety standards.
The high volumes compared with rapid growth are potentially problematic. The faster the growth, the harder it’ll be to put proper systems in place to prevent emergencies. If the situation isn’t resolved, the region could become far less popular with travelers.
Beyond Malaysia Airlines, the region has had a couple high-profile accidents in the past several years. In 2013, a Laos Airlines domestic flight popular with tourists crashed, killing all 49 on board. The accident was blamed on pilot error.
Air Asia, the region’s most popular budget airline, experienced a major accident in late 2014 on a flight between Surabaya, Indonesia and Singapore. All crew and 155 passengers were killed. Investigators said a technical problem, coupled with miscommunication, led to the crash.
In light of those accidents in the region, the decision to ban Rayani Air seems especially prudent. While some may think that Malaysian authorities were being too harsh, the decision is best for the industry.
Consistently delayed flights and poor communication are bad enough, but potentially outdated equipment and broken planes should never be taken lightly.
A Chance of a Comeback?
Rayani Air Owner Ravi Alagendrran said the decision to close the airline came at the same time that he’s seeking to raise funding. He’s reportedly appealing the decision and said in a statement that new leadership and investors would help with management of the airline.
That could merely be wishful thinking, as Malaysian authorities have spoken decisively about their problems with the airline. Acquiring the funding needed to allow the airline back in the skies might be more of a challenge, as the Rayani Air brand is tainted due to the problems it has experienced.
Perhaps the only chance it has to come back is a complete rebranding and restructuring. Airline rebranding has been successful for some companies in the past, yet a successful rebranding is contingent on raising funds and overcoming Malaysia’s decision to shutter the airline.
Malaysia has proven that it isn’t taking safety concerns lightly in the wake of the two crashes from the country’s national carrier, so the odds of Rayani Air coming back seem slim.