When the boss of a major international airline is obliged to make an official announcement of “business as usual”, it is a sure sign that not all is well.
This week Malaysia Airlines issued a statement to the world insisting that "the national carrier will not shut-down its operations on 28 May 2014, as rumoured”. The statement blamed predictions of its demise on “quotes from unofficial sources”. The carrier’s chief executive, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, said “We are running business as usual, and passengers should not worry.”
As every Malaysia Airlines executive, staff member and passenger is intensely aware, 12 weeks ago the greatest aviation mystery of the millennium was about to begin.
Late in the evening of 7 March, 227 passengers checked in at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a routine Malaysian Airlines departure to Beijing. Two pilots – Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid – and 10 cabin crew were rostered to work the Boeing 777 flight to the Chinese capital.
The last confirmed position of the aircraft was 40 minutes into the flight, as it flew at 35,000 feet above the South China Sea. Countless scenarios have been devised to explain what happened next, why the aircraft's transponder ceased transmissions and why no distress calls were made.
Shortly after midnight GMT on 8 March, Malaysia Airlines announced that one of its planes was missing. Ever since, the search has been characterised by false alarms and, most painfully for the relatives of passengers and crew, false hope.
Early reports suggested the aircraft had landed at Nanning in southern China. As the worried relatives of the 152 Chinese passengers gathered at Beijing’s Capital Airport, it became clear that these were mistaken. A week later, in what remains the most dramatic twist so far, Malaysia’s prime minister announced that British scientists had analysed “pings” received by an Inmarsat satellite and concluded the aircraft could be anywhere on an arc of territory from the southern Indian Ocean to the shores of the Caspian Sea – once again raising the hopes of relatives that the passengers might be alive, only for them to be dashed again when further analysis indicated the aircraft took the southern track.
Responsibility for the search landed on the desk of Martin Dolan, Chief Commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. This week, he concluded: “It is now highly unlikely that surface debris from the aircraft will be spotted. This means that the most effective way to continue the search is to look for MH370 under the water.”
Yet the past six weeks of intensive, expensive searching a patch of ocean may have been squandered. Just as the raw data from the first set of “pings” received by the Inmarsat satellite, was released to the relatives, an entirely separate set of signals now appears to have been a false positive.
The US Navy’s deputy director of ocean engineering, Michael Dean, said that the source of the pings was the device itself or an associated vessel. It is now accepted that the battery powering the aircraft's beacon will now have expired, and that the next phase of operation will involve grimly tedious sweeps across a swathe of ocean almost as large as Ireland.
Mr Dolan said: “The search will be a major undertaking. The complexities and challenges involved are immense, but not impossible. The best minds from around the world have been reviewing, refining and localising the most likely area where the aircraft entered the water, which is why we remain confident of finding the aircraft.”
As the cost of the search operation increases, the wisdom of prolonging the investigation has been called into question. The humane aspect, enabling relatives to obtain closure, remains a sufficient justification for many. But there is also a financial dimension, as a contributor to the pilots’ forum, PPrune, posted: “The eventual cost of losing an aircraft full of passengers probably won't leave much change from a billion dollars. So it's worth spending at least tens of millions to try to ensure it doesn't happen again.”
The commercial impact on the airline and Malaysia itself is becoming clear. The aviation consultant, John Strickland, said: “Malaysia Airlines was already suffering with significant losses and this incident has only compounded that. Confidence of Chinese travellers has been hit, an important part of Malaysian's business, and this has essentially been lost.”
There is also intense anger in the People’s Republic at the perceived mis-handling of the unfolding tragedy by the Malaysian government, particularly with the conflicting and incomplete information provided at the start of the investigation. Malaysia's tourism industry is braced for a fall in bookings.
The longer the mystery of MH370 continues, the wider the repercussions.
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