The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 follows another air disaster four months ago involving the same company, the same type of commercial jetliner — a Boeing 777 — and the same airport, in Kuala Lumpur, a pair of disasters that are without precedent in modern civil aviation history, experts said.
Both incidents are surrounded by some mystery. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on the morning of March 8 when it ceased transmitting electronic data while over the Gulf of Thailand. According to ground-based radar and satellite data, the aircraft appeared to abruptly change direction and fly into an extremely remote region of the southern Indian Ocean.
No one knows what happened on that plane. Officials suspect that this was a criminal act, probably involving the intentional diversion of the plane by someone in the cockpit. But the case remains very much unsolved.
Questions also surround the crash of Flight 17 on Thursday. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the plane was shot down by surface-to-air missiles in eastern Ukraine. Who fired the missile is unclear. Both separatist and Ukrainian officials, the only two logical perpetrators, have denied any involvement.
Aviation experts said Malaysia Airlines does not appear to be at fault. The pilot seems to have followed protocol. The plane was flying over unrestricted airspace, according to the International Air Transport Association, traveling along an otherwise routine route, and cruising more than 30,000 feet above Ukrainian land that was regularly being traversed not only by other Malaysia Airlines planes, but also by those of several other carriers, including Air France and Singapore Airlines.
And yet, rather cruelly, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Malaysia Airlines doesn’t suffer mightily.
The carrier acknowledged 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” after Flight MH370’s disappearance. And some airline industry analysts worried that a similar reaction may follow Thursday’s crash.
“Regardless of the objective truth about Malaysia Airlines’ negligence, the general public will perceive that it is not a safe airline,” Erin Brown, an associate professor and chair of the Safety Science Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, 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.”
“Human beings are irrational beings,” Brown added. “People choose airlines based on which they feel safest flying on, but we know that statistically speaking all airlines are pretty much equivalent.”
There have been at least seven other incidents in which passenger planes have been shot out of the sky. But the combination of two major disasters in a short span could be catastrophic for the airline’s reputation.
“This is almost certainly going to have a negative outcome for Malaysia Airlines. The only hope is that it be minimal,” said George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting and a former senior consultant at Global Aviation Associates.
Meanwhile, the search for the missing plane continues amid dwindling hope that it will ever be found. Earlier searches were marked by false leads and exaggerated optimism. Search vessels initially reported “pings” that might have come from the plane’s black box locator beacon, but officials later determined that they were either not from a man-made source or came from within surface ships.
A new phase of the search will begin Aug. 4 with the deployment of ships with sonar devices designed to map the terrain of the ocean floor in the region where the plane is thought most likely to have crashed. Australia Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss has told reporters that the primary search area would shift south and to the west, to a 23,000-square-mile region more than 1,000 miles west of Perth, according to a Reuters report.
On the Malaysia Airlines Web site, the company posted a statement July 6 reaffirming that the search is ongoing:
“Malaysia remains committed in the search for MH370. It must be stressed that Malaysia, together with Australia and China are doing our utmost in the search and our top priority remains to look for the missing MH370 and giving closure to the families of those on board MH370.”