How does an airline operating in one of the parts of the world already feeling the effects of climate change all too acutely approach the topic of sustainability? Simple Flying recently sat down for a conversation with Philip See, the Chief Sustainability Officer of Malaysia Airlines (and CEO of MAG’s low-cost regional subsidiary Firefly), to talk about the carrier’s commitments.

Transformative shifts in mindset over the past decades

Malaysia Aviation Group (MAG) launched its Sustainability Blueprint in April 2021. Initial commitments (beyond the industry-wide long-term aspirational goal of net zero emissions by 2050) included reducing the overall CO2 emissions by 25 million kg in 2021 and reaching 50% biodegradable materials for in-flight operations as well as recycling or upcycling 50% of ground and in-flight waste from 2025 onwards.

Philip See first joined Malaysia Airlines close to 20 years ago with the title of Transformations Management Officer. When talking about what has changed since then in the field of airline “transformation,” he highlights that the mindset has shifted from one that is shareholder centric to one that takes all stakeholders across the value chain into account.

“We talk about all the different parts of the business with which we are so interconnected and the relationships that we work with indirectly and directly. This has been the most transformative – how we look at these relationships. And that’s what drives the sustainability agenda going forward. (…) It is really about shifting that mindset on thinking about the stakeholders in a more meaningful and thoughtful way.”

Malaysia Airlines aircraft parked in KL

Photo: Getty Images

The focus for Malaysia Airlines’ environmental work is on near-term solutions, such as scaling sustainable aviation fuel. Other novel propulsion technologies, such as hydrogen, electric and hydrogen-electric, will factor into the equation later, after the airline sees how they mature. Meanwhile, the airline’s first SAF-powered passenger flight took off earlier this year, from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.

The flight was operated by a Boeing 737-800, and the fuel was supplied by Neste, which is planning to start SAF production at its Singapore refinery by the end of the first quarter of 2023. Prior to the passenger flight, a cargo-only flight from Malaysia Airlines took off from Schiphol Amsterdam Airport to Kuala Lumpur in December 2021 on a 38% biofuel blend.

Customer education

And when it comes to cutting emissions and scaling sustainable fuels, See is clear that there will need to be coalitions and partnerships, particularly regarding increasing use and production across Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, the industry has an immense communications task ahead of it in order to inform passengers about SAF and its environmental benefits. See, who was visiting the UK at the time of the interview, stated,

“When we talk about SAF in this part of the world, it is taken for granted that it is safe and that there are no issues with it. Whereas if you go to Asia-Pacific, SAF is still relatively unknown as an option and solution. So we still need to educate the customer that SAF is actually good for the environment and that it is actually the best pathway forward.”

Malaysia Airlines SAF flight

Photo: Neste / Martijn Gijsbertsen

Climate adaptation and increasing urgency

Indeed, for Malaysia Airlines, it is not just a matter of climate mitigation. The carrier and its home nation are already looking at climate adaptation – how to prepare and restructure operations in the face of climate change. See himself became passionate about sustainability during the floods of December last year. These not only severely affected the airline’s operations at Kuala Lumpur International Airport but saw many of its employees lose their property.

“We take it very seriously because it is very concerning to many of us how we need to take action on climate. My biggest advocates for sustainability are my employees. Because it hits very close to home when your home is flooded.”

man with belongings flooding

Photo: Getty Images

Fleet renewal timing brings airline to “sweet spot” for narrowbody hydrogen

Pivoting back to new technology, Malaysia Airlines is currently in the process of a fleet renewal program. For widebodies, it has opted for the Airbus A350-900, having received six over the past few years. Furthermore, the airline recently signed an order for 20 A330neo jets, ten to be purchased directly from Airbus and ten to be leased through Avolon. These will replace the carrier’s existing A330ceo fleet.

Additionally, the oneworld member airline has an order for 25 Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets, which will also offer substantial fuel savings compared to the previous generation narrowbodies they will be replacing. The full transition to newer technology aircraft is predicted to be completed sometime in the mid-2030s. Meanwhile, until the arrival of the MAXs. Malaysia Airlines has refitted its 737-800s with lighter seats and wireless in-flight entertainment.

And if novel propulsion technologies such as hydrogen mature by the late 2040s, that will have put Malaysia Airlines on a good trajectory time-wise to incorporate these into a fleet that will, by then, need a new round of modernization. See said,

“We’ve hit a very nice cycle where we do the fleet replacement taking place, and we might actually hit that sweet spot where the technologies are in place, and the next replacement is with hydrogen aircraft. However, I suspect that will be the case for narrowbodies, but not the widebodies.”

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boeing 737 max 8

Meanwhile, emissions are a subset of the environmental agenda, but as Chief Sustainability Officer, there are many more matters within the UN Sustainable Development Goals framework that land on See’s desk. This includes social responsibility and governance issues, such as gender equality and worker’s rights in Malaysia, as well as wildlife and human trafficking, both highly prevalent in the Asia-Pacific region.

Earlier this year, Malaysia Airlines partnered with the Stop Human Trafficking Association (SHUT), a non-governmental organization in Malaysia, to better equip the airline’s crew and ground staff to be more attentive in recognizing and reporting possible victims of human trafficking as well as raise awareness of the matter through a series of joint workshops, events, and campaigns.

See commented,

“We, of course, have a central team that thinks about sustainability. But the question is also how do you empower people, the teams on the ground, to do what they think is necessary to deliver social impact in their communities?”

  • Malaysia Airlines Airbus A330 Getty

    Malaysia Airlines

    IATA/ICAO Code:

    Airline Type:
    Full Service Carrier

    Kuala Lumpur International Airport

    Year Founded:
    May 1st, 1947


    Izham Ismail



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