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Mr Philip See from Malaysia Airlines talks about Sustainable Travel

The pandemic presented a turning point for sustainable travel. Booking.com’s 2022 Sustainable Travel Report found that 81% of global travellers confirmed that sustainable travel is essential to them, with 50% saying that recent news about climate change has influenced them to make more sustainable travel choices. In an exclusive interaction with The CSR Journal, Mr Philip See, Group Chief Sustainability Officer of Malaysia Airlines Berhad, highlights the airline’s roadmap to sustainability.

1. The COVID-19 pandemic caused major havoc in the travel industry. What was its impact on Malaysian Airlines? How was the company dealing with it?

As we’ve seen for the past two years, nothing can truly prepare us for the uncertainties ahead – especially regarding travel demand, industry capacity and changing market environments. COVID has severely impacted the already challenging operating climate for airlines due to prolonged border closure and scaled-down networks. Our balance sheet took a hit with a 96% reduction in flight capacity. However, we didn’t sit still and continued with the movement of essential services by mounting rescue and repatriation flights worldwide. We ensured global supply chains were maintained for the most time-sensitive supplies via our cargo arm, MASkargo.
During the pandemic, Malaysia Aviation Group (MAG), the parent company of Malaysia Airlines, took proactive measures to reduce costs, preserve cash, reset its balance sheet, transform the business dynamic to realign with its long-term aspirations and ensure business survivability by embarking on a successful Group-wide restructuring exercise in 2021. This includes diversifying our revenue streams beyond the pure-play airlines market. As a Group, we looked at the aviation ecosystem in its entirety to cater to the various needs and demands of market. Our goal with the long-term business plan 2.0 (LTBP 2.0) taking shape is to provide customised, end-to-end solutions for the travel ecosystem for enhanced connectivity and improved customer experience through our airlines and non-airlines businesses.
Aside from stabilising our cost base and ensuring business sustainability, the pandemic also accelerated digitalisation for many organisations. We fully realise that airlines need to rethink how they do business to come out of the crisis, empower our workforce to remain agile, and be equipped with the necessary skill sets to meet the demands and challenges ahead. Digitalisation will be the way forward in this ‘new normal’ of air travel. We have moved a significant portion of our processes online and accelerated our digitalisation efforts to ensure our staff can operate remotely and flexibly as a business.
If the pandemic had taught us anything, it would be the strength of our people, agility, adaptability and resilience that have put us in a brighter position where many others are still fighting to stay afloat. As borders globally reopen, we face an onset of challenges, including pressure on fuel costs and forex. While we are bullish for the coming years, we remain cautious of the environment. We will opportunistically deploy fleet and network expansion during peak periods to service high-demand/capacity sectors.

2. How was Malaysia Airlines engaging in the global fight against COVID-19?

Malaysia Airlines is committed to facilitating safe and seamless travels so guests can continue to Fly Confidently with us, in line with our MHFlySafe campaign of putting safety and hygiene as the anchor across all our end-to-end consumer touchpoints. We were the first to have our active crew fully vaccinated to provide our passengers with a safe and comfortable environment, giving them peace of mind as they travel with us.
The 7-star rating for COVID-19 health and safety measures we received from Airline Ratings is a testament to the airline’s excellence in implementing comprehensive safety protocols. Among actions taken include aircraft operations by fully vaccinated pilots and cabin crew, mandatory use of face masks, frequent aircraft disinfection following guidelines prescribed by the Ministry of Health Malaysia and World Health Organization, and utilisation of aircraft HEPA filters that are proven to filter out 99.97 per cent of viruses on board.
We are delighted to have also received certification for the “SAFEGUARD” Hygiene Excellence and Safety Label by Bureau Veritas, as it signifies that our efforts for safer and seamless travel meet international standards thoroughly assessed by an independent and globally recognised body.

3. Sustainability is becoming a top priority among travellers these days. How do the airlines look to cater to this audience?

Delivering socially responsible and environmentally focused service is one of our key priorities, with sustainability now top of mind for many travellers. The MAG Sustainability Blueprint sets, among other priorities, the course for the Group to contribute to a net zero carbon future by 2050. We are proud to be taking tangible steps toward that goal. As a Group, MAG will focus on four near-term priorities in the journey to net-zero emissions: aircraft efficiency, technological enhancements to aircraft, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), and carbon offsets.
Tackling emissions is a key priority as part of our environmental level, with SAF recognised globally as the most feasible option to reduce aviation emissions in the near term significantly. It is a critical component of our strategy to deliver a more sustainable travel experience for our customers and the environment.
As a pioneer in using SAF in Malaysian aviation, we have conducted the country’s first cargo and passenger flights using SAF. This includes the country’s first registered commercial aircraft from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the first passenger flight from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore operated by Malaysia Airlines, as well as Firefly’s (sister company under MAG) first domestic passenger flight from Subang to Penang, and first international flight from Seletar, Singapore to Subang, all powered by SAF. This is part of our overarching commitment to promoting socio-economic development and achieving its global commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. MAG will be working towards building deeper and longer-term partnerships to ensure continuous SAF-powered flights in the future.
Beyond carbon emissions, MAG has also initiated a series of initiatives across the environmental, social and governance dimensions anchored in support of the UN Sustainability Development Goals with an immediate focus on
– SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls​
– SDG 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all​
– SDG 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns​
– SDG 13: Take urgent actions to combat climate change and its impacts​

4. What are the airlines’ plans for achieving Net Zero emissions? How does the airline contribute to meeting Sustainable Development Goals?

One of our top priorities is to operate sustainably – encompassing environmental, social, safety, governance, and economic factors. We take quantifiable steps in promoting socio-economic development and achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Consumers, particularly the younger generation, are much more aware of the impact they have, not only on the environment but also socially within and surrounding their communities.
Our sustainability journey, guided by the MAG Sustainability Blueprint launched in 2021, has led us towards taking practical steps to minimise environmental impacts within our business operations. This includes bio-composting food waste from flights, enhancing fuel efficiency measures, repurposing scrapped aircraft parts into new products, and collaborating with local homegrown designers to upcycle aircraft materials into bespoke designer bags and shoes.
For us, Sustainability is also beyond just a mere net zero. It is also about levelling up, increasing women’s participation in technical roles, and reducing income inequality. We have committed to IATA’s 25by2025 initiative to strengthen and improve female representation within our organisation and the broader aviation industry.

5. How can the airline industry become more sustainable, in your opinion? What impact do you think it can have on the world?

The past two years have raised critical awareness of the sustainability dimension of economic development. Across the globe, policymakers, development institutions and corporates are calling for a stronger emphasis on environmental sustainability. The airline industry, too, has demonstrated a real commitment to environmental sustainability through various tangible initiatives related to new aircraft technologies, enhanced operations, sustainable fuels, etc.
Airlines and many airports have embraced sustainability initiatives, such as improving building airport infrastructure (green spaces, use of natural light, and renewable energy), widely dispersed recycling bins, and automated and intelligent building technologies. Airports continue to exhibit interest in IT that encourages energy conservation, environmentally friendly printing methods, and end-of-life recycling of IT equipment.
In my opinion, sustainability is an ongoing process of continuous improvement. As we look forward and seek to create a brighter future for the national aviation services group, the industry needs to be conscious and work towards creating a lot that also elevates and protects the communities we are present in. In the long run, our sustainability initiatives will drive us to be a more responsible, efficient and effective organisation, with the character and mindset to be environmentally responsible, the leadership to empower and develop our workforce expertise, the responsibility to spearhead safety leadership, the experience to go above and beyond compliance, and the ingenuity to maintain and grow profitability and resilience.