Malaysia Airlines temporarily bans luggage on Europe-bound flights

Story highlights

  • Malaysia Airlines temporarily banned checked-in luggage on its Europe-bound flights this week
  • The airline said "unreasonably strong headwinds" limited its ability to safely carry luggage
  • Aviation expert says such measures are unheard of in the industry

(CNN)Frequent fliers are used to occasionally finding one of their bags hasn't arrived at their destination with them, whether due to a tight connection or airline error.

But few have ever been told prior to boarding that their checked luggage simply wouldn't be joining them on the same flight.
    That's what happened to Malaysia Airlines passengers flying to Europe from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this week when the airline announced it was temporarily banning checked luggage from flights on January 5 and 6 due to "unreasonably strong headwinds" limiting the airlines' ability to safely carry baggage in cargo.
    Passengers who did wish to check luggage at the airport were told it'd be shipped to them on a later flight.
    On Wednesday morning the airline updated its travel advisory saying checked-in baggage would again be allowed on all flights as per the normal allowance.
    "The headwinds over the last four days were in excess of 200 knots, which can add up to 15% fuel burn on a B777-200 aircraft," said the airline in a statement.
    "Based on its current risk assessment, done on a daily basis, the airline is now able to take a shorter route on European flights."

    Expert: Unusual response to headwinds

    Why ban luggage?
    Strong headwinds cause flights to burn more fuel than normal and lightening the load reduces the speed of the burn.
    What makes the Malaysia Airlines situation unique is how the airline responded.
    "Weight restrictions on flights happen for all sorts of reasons -- weather and headwinds, hot/high airports or simply for very long routes," said CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest.
    Qantas Airways flights from Sydney to Dallas, for example, are occasionally prone to weight restrictions.
    "The issue is how you handle it," said Quest. "Most airlines would firstly leave behind cargo before inconveniencing passengers.
    "Others would deny boarding to some passengers to reduce the aircraft weight.
    "I can't say I have ever heard of luggage being left behind, because it is such an inconvenience to so many people. Better to leave a few behind than inconvenience and infuriate several hundred."
    Aviation expert Tom Ballantyne, chief correspondent for "Orient Aviation" magazine, told CNN he's never heard of an airline taking such measures either.
    "Normally, if there's an issue with range because of headwinds, a carrier would reduce the passenger load overall," said Ballantyne.
    "Obviously that would also reduce the revenue an airline is making from that particular flight, but it's not as if a headwind issue is a permanent situation.
    "It probably arises only a handful of days over a year. And clearly, no other carriers flying nonstop from Asia to Europe are taking similar measures."
    Mohsin Aziz, an aviation analyst at Maybank, based in Kuala Lumpur, told CNN that Malaysia Airlines' Boeing 777-200ER, which the company uses for its Paris and Amsterdam routes, is an old aircraft that's been around for 17 years and can fly only 14 hours on a full tank.
    Newer engines can last up to 17 hours.
    Flights from Kuala Lumpur to Paris and Amsterdam take about 12 hours -- so there's little leeway with the older jet, he said.
    Malaysia Airlines uses an Airbus A380 on its Kuala Lumpur to London route.
    On Twitter, responses to the airline's January 4 announcement of the temporary restrictions ranged from bafflement to anger, with many questioning why other airlines weren't imposing similar bans despite facing the same weather conditions.
    Malaysia Airlines responded that each airline conducts its own risk assessments and the safety of their passengers is of the utmost importance.