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The second accident in only four months could be catastrophic for Malaysia Airlines

Will anyone be able to look at Malaysia Airlines the same way anymore? (Charles Pertwee/Bloomberg News)

Malaysia Airlines hasn't solved its last airplane-related crisis, and yet here it is, a mere four months later, about to suffer the brunt of something entirely out of its control.

One of the airline's Boeing 777s crashed on Thursday with 295 people aboard in eastern Ukraine.  The plane, flight MH17, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, is believed to have been shot down by surface-to-air missiles, whose origin have yet to be confirmed. The crash took place some 50 kilometers from the Russian border, where pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces have been embroiled in fighting.

Many questions remain unanswered. Who exactly fired the missile, for instance, the question at the heart of the mystery, is still unclear. Both separatist and Ukrainian officials, the only two logical perpetrators, have denied their involvement. “This is a contested area. It’s going to take time to get some information on the intentions of whomever was involved," one U.S. official explained, unwilling to speak on the record.

What we do know, however,  is that this does not appear to be the fault of Malaysia Airlines. The airplane doesn't seem to have breached any protocol. It was flying over unrestricted airspace, according to the International Air Transport Association, traveling along an otherwise routine route, and cruising 30,000-plus feet above Ukranian land that was regularly being traversed not only by other Malaysia Airline planes, but also by those of several other carriers, including Air France and Singapore Airlines.

And yet, rather cruelly, it's very difficult to envision a scenario in which Malaysia Airlines doesn't suffer mightily. "Regardless of the objective truth about Malaysia Airlines' negligence, the general public will perceive that it is not a safe airline," Erin Bowen, an Associate Professor and Chair of the Safety Science Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said in an interview. "I suspect you're going to see a pretty significant drop in revenue. Whether Malaysia Airlines will be able to rebound from this is questionable at best."

There have been at least seven other incidents in which passenger planes have been shot out of the sky. But having two major disasters hit the same airline company in such a short span is without precedent in modern civil aviation history. This latest one and the previous, in which Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared in March en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, could be catastrophic for the airline's reputation. Erasing an association between the airline and the successive accidents could prove difficult, if not impossible.

“This is almost certainly going to have a negative outcome for Malaysia Airlines, the only hope is that it be minimal," George Hamlin, President of Hamlin Transportation Consulting and former senior consultant at Global Aviation Associates, said in an interview.

Malaysia Airlines admitted publicly that it saw "a major short-term reaction in consumer behavior" and "observed high cancellation of existing bookings and reduction in long-haul bookings in favor of short-haul bookings” in the wake of Flight MH370's disappearance.

The current accident being investigated in Ukraine might not be the airline's fault, but that might not matter. "One of the things that we know is that human beings are irrational beings," Bowen said. "And humans are particularly irrational about flying. People choose airlines based on which they feel safest flying on, but we know that statistically speaking all airlines are pretty much equivalent."

Roberto A. Ferdman is a reporter for Wonkblog covering food, economics, immigration and other things. He was previously a staff writer at Quartz.



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