Malaysia Airlines bans, then un-bans, checked bags on flights to Europe

Trouble-ridden Malaysia Airlines left analysts scratching their heads over an announcement Tuesday that it would not allow checked baggage on its Malaysia-to-Europe routes, only to scrap the plan Wednesday morning.

Malaysia Airlines Wednesday said baggage allowances are available again on all flights across the network including services to Amsterdam, London and Paris.

The original statement posted on the carrier's website on Tuesday announcing the ban cited "unseasonably strong headwinds" and long routes over Egyptian airspace as reasons for the move, calling it a safety issue. Passengers could still check baggage, but it would arrive later, that original statement said.

The airline also limited carry-on baggage to 7 kilograms per person in economy class and 14kg in business and first class.

"The airline has recently had to operate a longer route to Europe, which combined with strong head winds, limited the airlines' ability to carry baggage and cargo. The head winds over the last four days were in excess of 200 knots, which can add up to 15 percent fuel burn on a B777-200 aircraft," Malaysia Airlines said in a statement on Wednesday.

"Based on its current risk assessment, done on a daily basis, the airline is now able to take a shorter route on European flights," Malaysia Airlines said.

In responses on its Twitter account, Malaysia Airlines said, "We currently operate a long route to EU via Egypt airspace to avoid conflict zones."

The original statement has since been removed from the Malaysia Airlines site; it was initially replaced with an update saying that normal baggage restrictions had been restored on its flights to London, but the ban still applied to flights to Amsterdam and Paris on January 5-6. The original statement had indicated the baggage restriction could continue indefinitely, based on weather conditions.

Analysts were puzzled by the move.

"It's very peculiar," said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at Flight Global magazine, noting he hadn't heard of any other airline making such a move, including Singapore Airlines, which flies similar routes.

He said that if a carrier truly wanted to reduce the weight of an aircraft, called "payload restriction," it would usually limit the number of passengers rather than checked baggage.

Waldron said that the last time he could recall a similar step was during the 1970s, when the Concorde, which had a small fuselage, would sometimes have baggage follow in a 747, but he called that a "first-class operation" with service that delivered bags to passengers.

Malaysia Airlines' luggage ban is a "PR blunder," he said. "People are just going to get upset. Not everyone is going to get the memo."

In responses posted on Twitter, Malaysia Airlines, when asked why other airlines weren't following its unusual step, said, "Each airline conducts their own risks assessment and may not be flying similar routes." It also said, "We conduct risk assessment on a daily basis and this is a temporary measure while we evaluate alternative measures."

Social media users had quickly begun venting over the airline's now-cancelled policy.

On Twitter, the words "ludicrous" and "bizarre" were common. The twitter account Jelo Feliciano wrote, "I don't see why that's even a thing. You expect people to travel long haul without luggage?! That's ludicrous."

On Malaysia Airlines' Facebook page, some commentators took to humor.

"Is MAS going to start weighing the passengers soon? Joke of the year. Standard weight 50kg per passenger, over that weigh, the body parts to follow on next flight?," a Facebook account for Angela Liew wrote on Malaysia Airlines' Facebook page Tuesday.

Others were more concerned about the practicalities of collecting late luggage.

"Will they help to transfer if you are a transit passenger to other destination? What about custom check on passenger luggage that will forward on the next plane? This will be a problem at destination that airlines' staffs cannot solve," a Facebook user with an account name of Lim Teng Siang posted to Malaysia Airlines' Facebook page Wednesday.

Malaysia's flagship carrier has seen quite a few troubles in recent times. In December, its flight MH132 from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur followed the wrong route, with media reporting that the plane was headed in a more southerly direction toward Melbourne, Australia, for as much as an hour.

The carrier said in a statement on the website that it gave the crew a different flight plan than the one it gave Auckland's Air Traffic Control, but that both routes were approved flight paths and the aircraft had enough fuel for both routes.

The carrier already faced headwinds from safety concerns after it lost two flights.

On March 8, 2014, flight MH370 disappeared during a flight from Kuala Lumber to Beijing; the fate of the plane remains shrouded in mystery, but its flight path appears to have been widely diverted to the southern Indian Ocean. Despite an ongoing search, only a piece of the wing has been found, after it washed up on a beach on Reunion island.

That was followed by the loss of flight MH17 in July 2014, when the plane was shot down by a missile in Ukrainian airspace during a territorial conflict between Russia and Ukraine. All passengers and crew were killed.

- Nyshka Chandran contributed to this article

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1