MH370 has been declared an accident – what are the consequences?

Simon Calder answers the key questions

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The Independent Online

Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation has said: “We officially declare Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 an accident.”

Does that mean they know what happened?

No. The greatest mystery in aviation history remains unsolved. The aircraft with 227 passengers and 10 crew on board disappeared in the early hours of 8 March last year, on a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The jet was initially presumed to have been lost in the South China Sea. But ground-breaking analysis of automated “pings” from the aircraft led investigators to conclude it crashed in the Indian Ocean west of Australia after running out of fuel.

So why conclude it’s an accident?

To allow grieving relatives of the victims to begin the process of claiming compensation for their losses. Defining the disappearance as an “accident" means that the Montreal Convention, which governs pay-outs when planes are lost, comes into play. Article 17 says: “The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft.” Under a separate aviation treaty, the Chicago Convention, the term “accident” includes cases where the aircraft is missing. The government in Kuala Lumpur said: “Malaysia Airlines is ready to proceed immediately with the compensation process.”


Is the search continuing?

Yes. The director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation says: “We have never wavered in our commitment to continue our efforts to find MH370 and bring closure for everyone, most of all for the families of the passengers and crew. This declaration is by no means the end.” Australian safety authorities are conducting a systematic search of the seabed in the area of the Indian Ocean thought most likely to contain the plane. It covers an area where the water is 6,000m deep.

How long could it take?

The project began in the autumn and is expected to take up to a year.

If they find the plane, what will it tell us?

That depends on many factors. But suppose the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder are recovered intact, and that they were not disabled deliberately. They may provide clues to what happened, including in particular any commands given to the controls in the latter stages of the flight - and anything audible from the flight deck.

What if it reveals that the crash was a deliberate act - will the “accident” verdict stand?

From a strictly legal point of view in the application of the Montreal Convention, yes - though if evidence were to implicate a member of the Malaysia Airlines crew in the disappearance, the relatives of the victims could pursue other legal options.