The details of the catering contract haven't been released, noted Mohshin Aziz, an analyst at Maybank. "It's been presumed that it's a lopsided contract. The effect has been to pay too much for their food and catering on board and unfortunately, they're stuck," Aziz said.
The catering company, Brahim's Airline Catering, is majority owned by Brahim's Holdings, which didn't immediately return an email requesting comment.
He said MAS has been through many turnaround plans over the years. "The one in 2006-7 had glimmers of hope. It was even profitable for a year. It's probably the closest they've had for success. Thereafter, not much," he said.
(Read more: How will Malaysian Airlines investors endure tragedy?)
Others aren't optimistic about the current turnaround plan. "The company's restructuring plan will likely take longer than anticipated (as management contends with a weak macro climate, FX headwinds and heightened competition)," Michael Beer, an analyst at Citigroup, said in a report last month.
"The current operating environment is likely to impair management's ability to right the ship, in our view. Management was able to improve its aircraft utilization and streamline costs during the second half of 2013, but at the expense of passenger fares (which would have likely been under pressure anyway)," Beer said.
(Read more: Passports are weak link in overseas airports)
Labor issues are another factor in the carrier's inability to post a profit.
Aziz noted the company faces "very demanding" unions, with concerns over working hours and processes as well as perks and promotions "really putting a strain on the company's financials."
In 2000, the government bailed out the carrier by buying back a 29 percent stake from businessman Tajudin Ramli at 8 ringgit a share. The stock never traded over 2 ringgit during 2000, according to Reuters data; it closed Wednesday at 27 sen.
MAS is around 69 percent owned by Khazanah Nasional, Malaysia's sovereign wealth fund.
—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1