Trade and industry | Asia, Southeast Asia

31 January 2017

With the search for missing aircraft MH370 suspended almost three years after its disappearance, Pieter Nel reflects on the management of the crisis and the policy changes that are required to make the aviation sector safer.

The disappearance of MH370 on route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March 2014, resulting in the deaths of 239 passengers and crew, remains one of the greatest and most tragic modern day aviation mysteries. A piece of the wing of a Boeing 777-200ES, called a flaperon, washed up on Reunion Island between 2015 and 2016 and was subsequently positively identified as part of the ill-fated aeroplane. More wreckage washed up afterwards and is evidence of South Indian Ocean currents moving towards the African Continent, pointing to the possible location of MH370.

Intriguing and unresolved questions remain, including why and how MH370 came to such a mysterious end. Perhaps it was pilot error, a mechanical malfunction, sabotage, a bomb, hijacking, action by either the passengers, the crew or even the pilot suffering from psychological problems. Despite intensive international efforts using extremely sophisticated satellite surveillance, as well as electronic equipment both in the air and underwater, nobody is any wiser nearly three years after the incident.

The way Malaysian Air (MAS) Management and the Malaysian Government handled the tragedy displayed overtones of a lack of appropriate policy and a state of shock in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude. The situation was exacerbated only 131 days later on 17 July 2014 when a second disaster struck, with MH17 shot down over the Ukraine killing all 298 passengers and crew on board.

However, let’s now address the MH370 mystery in terms of its policy implications in view of the announcement to suspend the search on the one hand and objections by relatives wanting the search to continue on the other. The Ministers of Transport from Australia, Malaysia and China confirmed on 17 January 2017 that the underwater search in 120,000 square-kilometres of the Southern Indian Ocean had been suspended, until any new, credible evidence comes to light. They remained hopeful that at some point in the future the aircraft would be located.

The international media via newspapers, TV, radio and social media, criticised MAS Management, as a state-owned organisation and the Malaysian Government regarding their handling of the catastrophe. Their decisions affected family members and other stakeholders and were a clear demonstration of clumsy crisis management and a lack of clear policy.

More on this: Is the push to make airlines more competitive compromising safety?

MAS Management’s announcements, starting five hours after the aeroplane disappeared, left stakeholders and relatives confused due to the contradictory nature of the statements. Further examples of questionable policy execution by MAS Management included: initially notifying everybody by text message only that the aeroplane was missing; MAS Management’s seeming insensitivity to the fact that two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese nationals; the belated publication of the MAS recovery plan in August 2014 covering 12 key elements in four areas; MAS Management’s failure to focus sufficiently on risk management from the very start due to a seemingly ineffective crisis management plan; and MAS Management’s failure to reformulate its leadership style to be more proactive in dealing with crises in the recovery plan. A highly insensitive promotion called ‘My Ultimate Bucket-List’ as part of MAS’ image recovery activities, was simultaneously launched in Australia and New Zealand on 1 September 2014, leaving relatives distraught and angry.

A review of the procedures, policies and attitudes in dealing with crisis situations was essential and should have entailed more than a restructuring to the Malaysia Aviation Group (MAG) in the hope of achieving a successful future.

MAS Management exhibited what is described in academic literature as a ‘double crisis loop’. It occurs when the original crisis is overlaid by a ‘communication crisis’ as the organisation is not capable of running the communication processes, which is supposed to address the handling of the original crisis. MAS needs to address this in future policy changes.

The implications for the aviation industry should include addressing the following policy refinements. Firstly, safety ought to be continuously revised, as demonstrated by the explosion on-board an EgyptAir flight early in 2016 killing all passengers and crew. On top of that, airport security must be improved, remembering that two passengers with stolen European passports boarded MH370 which is usually an action attributed to criminals and terrorists. Competency checks on pilots regarding their physical and emotional stability to fly passenger aeroplanes also need to be stepped up. It was speculated that the MH370 captain was “emotionally stressed” due to clashes with MAS administration and apparently also having gambling debts. Additionally, aeroplane tracking devices must be enhanced to prevent any tampering with such devices while airborne.

Finally, the close relationship between MAS Management and the Malaysian government perhaps hindered efforts to make customers the first priority after the disappearance of MH370. The Malaysia Aviation Group (MAG) was established in late 2014 which includes Air Transportation Services and a restructuring of MAS to revitalise the airline’s reputation and competency and regain profitability.

The Malaysian aviation industry remains unsettled despite measures to curb losses, including staff redundancies, and delisting and reorganising MAS itself. Public confidence, however, seems to remain low despite the changed policies and the efforts of MAS Management to turn the troubled airline around and regain potential passengers’ confidence and trust. Policies can, and perhaps will change, but that trust deficit is a situation unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

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