Could this disaster happen again?
In the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 the answer is we don’t know. And that is a dangerous answer because it’s a religion with air crash investigators never to quit until they have the answer.
And yet, as we saw this week, the Malaysians have peremptorily shuttered their investigation into the disappearance of their Boeing 777 with 239 aboard without being able to explain what happened.
That is contrary to the diligence expected of every investigation. There is an obligation to discover whether a crash revealed a flaw, either human or mechanical (or a combination of both) that could recur.
Why is this so important? Because flying has only become as remarkably safe as it is because over many decades this question has been successfully answered in an unforgiving process. One crash after another has been relentlessly scrutinized until its cause could be explained beyond any reasonable doubt.
This is what makes the case of MH370 so disturbing.
Nearly five years after the flight disappeared without trace it has now joined a gallery of ghosts. It has assumed a new cultural dimension, moving from the tangible to the invisible under the marquee title of The World’s Greatest Aviation Mysteries. In the future this will attract numerous narratives, from the rational to the insane
Obviously, this is not a happy place to be. Nobody wants to be part of this kind of enduring mystery story. The list of victims stretches back into the earliest days of flight and includes many names long since forgotten and one that is never forgotten, Amelia Earhart.
Most of these are the ghosts of a time when aviation safety was on a steep and sometimes wobbly learning curve. The machines were relatively primitive. The risks taken were often reckless. Many parts of the process of flying were fallible. The science was slow in evolving—every death held a lesson for the future.
No other form of transportation produced such spectacularly shocking ways of dying in the course of its growth. The sudden, apparently arbitrary and violent nature of air crashes gave them an impact on public awareness that made air travel seem more dangerous than it actually was—road accident death rates were always much higher in aggregate but nobody ever coined the phrase “fear of driving.”
It is a mark of how much has changed since then that the level of risk acceptable in commercial aviation during its first five decades would be unthinkable now. Every year more than four billion passengers board a scheduled commercial flight across the world with an almost complete certainty that no risk is involved.
Indeed, 2017 was the first year on record when nobody died on a commercial jet worldwide. Statistically the chance of a fatal accident is one in every 16 million flights.
Survivability in a crash has become a big factor in this improvement of safety. A few days ago this was demonstrated when an Aeromexico jet crashed just after takeoff from Durango, Mexico. The Embraer 190 was loaded with fuel and the impact was violent yet all 103 people aboard survived. Everybody was evacuated before the cabin was consumed in fire. Evacuation was made easier because the Embraer cabin has only two seats each side of the aisle, not three, and also because the cabin crew were exemplary in how they handled the emergency.
Set against this background of a vastly improved safety record, MH370 is an anomaly—and, as a mystery, intolerable. In some way the highly sophisticated system that has given us an all but impeccable safety culture has failed. And we still have no idea which part or parts of that system, either singly or in combination, failed.
In every air crash there is a rush to assign blame. In the course of covering this story from the beginning I have seen the urge to assign blame surface, as it always does, from a variety of motives, from those anxious to escape responsibility to the anguished families who lost loved ones.
There seemed plenty of blame to go around when confronted with the serial incompetence of the Malaysian authorities. And, understandably, deep in their own irremediable grief, the families of the victims, frequently treated by the Malaysians as an unwanted nuisance, were handed a good target to blame.
But blame without information is a blunt instrument. And that applies particularly to the pilots involved. When I began covering air crashes 20 years ago, a veteran air-crash investigator cautioned: “Always remember, blame has no place in an investigation. Pilot error, for example, is a symptom of other problems and not a cause of accidents. Errors happen all the time.
“It is absolutely vital to get behind the error and ask what contributed to that person making the mistake. Was it the design? The training? The procedures? Most errors are part of being human.”
As it happens, that wisdom was later to be borne out by the disaster that, in some ways, is a direct precursor to the loss of Flight MH370.
In 2009 Air France Flight 447 from Rio to Paris disappeared in the south Atlantic, taking 228 souls with it. This was the first loss of a modern jet over an ocean where its final resting place was elusive: it took two years to locate the wreckage.
Once the wreckage was examined and the flight data recorders disclosed the final fatal minutes of the flight, an alarming picture emerged that combined a flawed technology with a poor response from the pilots. An instrument that recorded the air speed had fed wildly erratic data into the computers that directed the airplane’s autopilot system (the system normally flying the Airbus A330 at cruise as this was).
The computers, confused, began to shut down. The two pilots were unprepared to recover control from the computers and, because of the false air speed readings, were just as confused as their instruments. If they had correctly recognized the problem they could—and should—have flown themselves out of trouble. Instead, their handling errors magnified the jet’s instability and it fell rapidly into the ocean.
The original fault with the air speed instrument had been caused by icing in unusual climatic conditions. The decisively lethal fault was human. As a result, pilots now get regular training in simulators for the specific skill required, “upset recovery.” And the instrument was redesigned so that icing would not take it out.
So the case of Air France Flight 447 began as a preventable disaster but concluded as a classic exercise in how to learn from a crash and make flying safer.
But one vital lesson of that disaster remained unheeded: it should not take two years to find the remains of a jet lying at the bottom of the ocean. Most people were shocked to discover that in many parts of the world there was no effective way of keeping track of an airliner over oceans. French investigators vigorously demanded a remedy, but were ignored—until Flight MH 370 vanished over water.
In truth, this reveals a scandalous example of recidivism on the part of those charged with overseeing airline safety, both the regulators and the airlines themselves.
To prevent an airliner disappearing when beyond radar range over water, and to know in an emergency what had gone wrong, two measures needed to be taken, both readily available. The first was flight tracking, a secure automatic system that kept constant track via satellites of where the airplane was at all times. The second was a data streaming system that could be triggered in an emergency to describe what was happening to the airplane’s systems.
The failure to take these steps after such a clear red flag was raised by Air France 447 was partly psychological and partly venal. The airlines simply believed that this had been a one-off combination of errors that would never happen again. (The errors of piloting were, in any case, being remedied.) And, because of that, they decided that it wasn’t worth spending the money to provide dependable tracking and monitoring.
That same complacent mindset is, incredibly, apparent in the response to the loss of the Malaysian 777. But it’s even worse.
Flight MH370 has now become, uniquely in the history of modern air travel, a cold case that nobody wants to solve. They just can’t be bothered. That is, I believe, because once more the aviation industry’s attitude is that this was a freak event with its own peculiar causes that cannot possibly bother us again. Not worth spending any more money to pursue.
Some of this attitude is based on a belief widely held among airline chiefs that the Malaysian pilots were involved. But even the Malaysian officials who were the first to have promoted this theory have now had to conclude that there is no evidence to support it, and never was. In the absence of that theory there is no other credible evidence of deliberate human involvement: no terrorist claim, no evidence of a hijacking and no sinister takeover of the controls by remote means.
At least, steps have finally been taken to equip airline fleets with new flight tracking systems. By November this year all jets carrying 19 or more passengers must be capable of reporting their position every 15 minutes. By 2021 they must be able in an emergency to report every minute.
The cost of not having such a system in place when Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur on the red-eye run to Beijing that night is enormous – both in money and in human suffering.
The insurance costs and liabilities are in contention because, without knowing the cause, responsibility for the crash cannot be assigned. Soon after the disaster experts at Credit Suisse estimated that the loss of the airplane itself would amount to a cost of $100 million. They also estimated the total liability costs to the relatives of passengers would be around $500 million, but that has turned out to be impossible to calculate. Liability varies according the nationality of the victims and the national laws governing settlements.
According to the Malaysian government, within two years of the disaster 42 families who lost members on the flight had settled for payments of $175,000 for each close relative, as was required by the airline’s legal obligations. But many other claims and lawsuits will drag on. Initially French insurers paid out $750 million to relatives of those lost on Air France 447, but numerous law suits have since been settled without the amount being disclosed.
All along, one nation involved in the consequences of the crash has been strangely silent: China. There were 152 Chinese passengers on the flight, by far the largest of any nationality. The Chinese have never publicly voiced any criticism of the way the Malaysians dealt with the aftermath or the lengthy deep sea searches.
China made the smallest contribution to the search costs, $20 million in search equipment and financial contribution. Australia, which had only six passengers aboard, committed $60 million and Malaysia, with 50 passengers aboard, contributed at least $100 million.
Quite clearly, nobody wants to spend another penny with the formal investigation wound up. It’s like a murder mystery without a body to explain it. Or, rather, without 239 bodies that lie somewhere in the dark depths of a distant ocean unable to tell their story, possibly forever.