Malaysia Airlines CEO attempts 'greatest turnaround'

Has Malaysia Airlines made a comeback?
Has Malaysia Airlines made a comeback?

It may be the toughest job in the aviation industry.

Peter Bellew is overseeing the revamping of Malaysia Airlines, the struggling carrier that was nationalized after it lost two passenger jets with hundreds of people aboard in separate disasters in 2014.

Bellew, the airline's third CEO in less than three years, has clear ideas for what it needs to do. That includes driving down costs and turning its fleet of A380 superjumbo jets into charter planes for Muslim pilgrims.

"I think this will be the greatest turnaround in the history of aviation and maybe even of any business," he told CNNMoney's Richard Quest.

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The changes at the airline in recent years have been dramatic. It shed about 6,000 jobs and scrapped most of its long-haul routes to focus on flights within Asia.

"I don't believe people in the [United] States or in Europe quite get the scale of the economy that there is here," said Bellew, a former executive at low-cost Irish airline Ryanair (RYAAY). He sees Malaysia growing as a transit hub for the rest of the region.

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Peter Bellew became CEO of Malaysia Airlines last year, the company's third leader in less than three years.

Retooling the airline's A380s is one of his big moves.

Next year, the six superjumbos will be retired from normal service and offered for charter by groups undertaking the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The huge planes will be overhauled to carry as many as 715 passengers, with a business class section, prayer areas and washing zones for feet and hands.

"We are trying to capture 5-6% of the global market, which is growing all the time," Bellew said. "People save to go to this for up to 30 years, and we've got great interest in the product already."

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For the carrier's main business, he's trying to balance the need to cut costs with reestablishing Malaysia Airlines as a premium brand.

The company is succeeding in winning back passengers. At the end of last year, it hit its highest load factor -- a measure of how full its planes are -- in a decade.

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And the airline's name isn't changing. Despite the baggage of the disasters the airlines suffered in 2014 -- the disappearance of Flight 370 and the shooting down of Flight 17 -- Bellew says ditching the company brand would have thrown away decades of heritage.

"The world loves the brand Malaysian Airlines," he said. "It's an asset the company can't let go of right now."

After the disasters, the company was pulled from the stock market and taken private by Malaysian sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional. The aim now is to list its shares again by 2019.

Bellew says he took on the job because he knew it wouldn't be easy.

"It's that challenge and that sense that I can help out or make them move the thing along and get it fixed," he said.

-- Michala Sabnani contributed to this report.

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