World News

03.11.14

The Botched Hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

The contradicting accounts of what happened to the plane would be farcical if not for the 239 people who are missing. How did Malaysia get this so wrong?

Who exactly is coordinating the release of information about the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? Nobody, it would seem. It depends which source you listen to—the government officials, the airline, or the Malaysian military. For there to be such imprecision in the information and so many contradictions between sources four days into a search would be farcical were it not for the tragedy unfolding and the distress being caused. Working quietly in the background, and clearly becoming frustrated, are crash investigators and a team sent to Malaysia by Boeing.

The chief of the Malaysian air force, General Rodzali Daud, was responsible for an entirely new round of speculation when he was reported saying that the Boeing 777 changed direction from the direct route to Bejing and, instead, turned clear away from that course toward the south west. Twelve hours later – having inspired a whole new slew of maps and graphics – the General reversed himself. He had not made any such statement, he said, although they had not ruled out “the possibility of an air turnaround.” Whether this also invalidated the statement that the last contact made with the airplane was an hour later than previously stated, 2:40am, was not clear. If the 777 had followed the route suggested by the General it was heading out over the Andaman Sea toward India.

What is becoming clear from all this confusion is something that will have consequences for future air crash investigations. In countries where it is traditional for the military to override civilian authority, and where the military directs key resources like radar coverage and air traffic control, there is no coherent system that swings into action in a disaster, no playbook to operate by and no experience of dealing with the public consequences.

This kind of cultural barrier becomes particularly troublesome in a region like Asia, where air travel is expanding faster than anywhere else in the world, driven by two ineluctable forces: An explosion of demand from China and, simultaneously the rapid growth of budget airlines. These market forces are overtaking the region’s aviation infrastructure, affecting not only how crash investigations are handled but the overall regulatory rigor, the training and monitoring of air crew and the supervision of crucial safety standards, like maintenance.

Meanwhile, the muddle in Malaysia makes it far harder for the searchers to know where to look. The absence still of any wreckage suggests that the airplane went over one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the Strait of Malacca. If it had crashed into that stretch of water it would have been like ditching in the English Channel—scores of ships would have seen it. This also an area known for piracy, which means that military radar surveillance would have been highly active.

The Malaysians have not even made the first basic step necessary to the investigation, to provide a timeline of contacts between the ground stations and the airplane after it left Kuala Lumpur. Instead, there are suggestions that the airplane’s transponders, essential to its navigation and to the controllers tracking it because they continually confirm its position, were turned off. That, of course, implies some kind of human intervention. But it could equally be the case that the transponders failed, in spite of the Boeing 777 having backup power systems to ensure that that never happens, which in turn could be caused by some catastrophic systems shutdown on the airplane.

Commander William Marks of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that despite the search being re-directed to the Gulf of Thailand and deploying two destroyers, helicopters and a P3 marine surveillance airplane with the world’s most advanced equipment not a single piece of debris had been spotted. “It’s not a matter of if we could see something,” said Commander Marks. “We’ve picked up small wooden crates on our radar, something as small as a soccer ball.”

Confusion abounds. And that confusion makes it far harder for the searchers to know where to look.

If it is true that the 777 headed off into the vastness of the Andaman Sea toward India, no longer able to relay its position, it could eerily have echoes of what happened over the Mediterranean in 2005. A Boeing 737 of Helios Airways flying from Larnaca, Cyprus, to Athens suffered what was called an uncontrolled decompression, due to a mistake made by the crew to the cabin pressurization settings after a door seal had been affected by freezing temperatures. Oxygen gradually leaked from the airplane and as a result the passengers and crew were rendered unconscious. The 737 flew on for three hours until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a mountain in Greece.

Greek fighter planes were scrambled to fly alongside the airplane and reported that the captain’s seat was empty and the copilot was slumped at the controls.

All of this happened in daylight, and controllers were aware that something was amiss. And to be sure, the 737 is mechanically dissimilar to the far more advanced 777 of Flight 370, but the phenomenon of a slow pressurization leak cannot be ruled out.

The 7th Fleet’s Commander Marks was far too diplomatic in his language to admit that his mission is being hampered by the chronic confusions of the Malaysian authorities. “We’re here for as long as they need us,” he said.

This article was revised after officials altered their account of the plane's route.