Malaysia Airlines is preparing for the delivery of its first A350 aircraft this year, and already has it earmarked for Auckland as the first long-haul route.

Speaking with Business Traveller, CEO Peter Bellew said:

“The first long-haul route will be Auckland, I think, and Tokyo, and a new destination we don’t currently fly to. It’s under negotiation. We are talking to three or four airports and there’s one that’s in the lead at the moment and we know the ground over there and we know the people. We should have that announced by the end of April.”

Malaysia Airlines has six A350-900 aircraft on order, with the first one being delivered at the end of the year. The deliveries have been delayed, and Bellew says that despite Airbus assuring him that they will be with the airline in October 2017, he is expecting them on December 31.

Bellew said that the configuration of the aircraft is still being finalised, but it will have three classes – economy, business and first – and will have “just a bit north of 300 seats”.

For comparison Cathay Pacific has 280 seats on board its A350s, while Ethiopia has 343 – for more details on how the various A350 operators configure their aircraft, see:

Airbus A350: how the airlines compare

The aircraft will be configured with three classes – economy, business and first. There will be no premium economy cabin, but selected economy seats will have extra legroom, and eligible Enrich members will have access to these.

The replacement of the A380 on the London route is a mixed blessing – both for passengers who have been enjoying extremely competitive pricing, and also the airline since the aircraft can deliver nearly 500 passengers twice daily into the Kuala Lumpur hub, many of whom then “feed” into other flights.

“We’ll miss the difference of 200 people [going into the hub],” admitted Bellew, but he pointed out that the decision was made last summer.

“In January or February last year we had some flights when we were flying A380s to London with 50 or 60 people on board. I was chief operating officer at the time and for me and for the staff it was soul destroying. Now we’re overbooked, but I can’t change the strategy back.”

This strategy Bellew refers to involves moving Malaysia Airlines’ fleet of six A380 aircraft into a separate company which will use them for Hajj and Umraa pilgrimage flights, as well as leasing them out to other operators.

Bellew also pointed out that the A350 is “40 per cent cheaper to operate than an A380 and the passengers will enjoy the plane and it’s going to be an even nicer product on board.”

As far as other European routes go, Bellew said that Paris would not return because the airport is “extortionately expensive” but Amsterdam would be an “obvious” move and would be served with leased B777 aircraft with lie-flat beds on board in 2019 or 2020.

“It would be foolhardy to do Europe now because we have big work to get our profitability back,” Bellew said, “but we had a very successful flight to Amsterdam for many years and the cost of leasing six-year-old B777s is dropping quickly. In terms of connecting up for feed it’s pretty obvious.”

Other possible future destinations would include a return to Istanbul, again, for the connecting traffic, and possibly Manchester.