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July 19, 2014 2 Comments

MH17 disaster: blinded by jargon

Abudul Aziz knows more than most about Malaysia Airlines. He helped to build the airline from its inception in 1971, serving as company secretary, director of legal affairs and managing director from 1981 to 1991. It was certainly clear, when we met at his home in an affluent part of Kuala Lumpur that Mr Aziz loves the company – it was equally clear that he is worried about it.

Malaysia Airlines has lost two aircraft carrying 537 people, in the space of 4 months – a series of events unparalleled in modern aviation history. However, the airline was in trouble before MH370 disappeared on the early morning flight to Beijing in March. The company reported a loss of $139m (£81.3m) in the first quarter of this year. In 2013, the company reported a loss of over half a billion dollars – its third consecutive year in the red.

With the loss of MH17, the airline is bound to experience another sharp drop in bookings and Mr Aziz says the politicians are going to have to spend a lot of money if the national carrier is going to survive. “If the government is prepared to fund them while they recover, they can try put in a new team to manage their business. But if no one wants to fund them it is going to very, very difficult.”

452368646 MH17 disaster: blinded by jargon

Government funding will not be enough, however, to keep company afloat, says the former chief executive. If Malaysia Airlines is going to emerge from the storm clouds now enveloping it, then something else needs to happen. “They must make sure that they don’t make any blunders over the next to six months to a year to prove to the world that they can still carry on,” warns Mr Aziz. “If another accident or mistake is made, then that’s it. It would be very difficult for them to convince the public to come back.”

This uncomfortable reality was on public display at the official press conference today – government and company officials were not prepared to accept any responsibility for the downing of MH17.

When the airline’s director of operations, Captain Izham Ismail, was asked why they had not followed the example of other airlines and re-routed aircraft around Ukraine, he had this to say: “Our threat analysis said it was safe. All airlines conduct their own threat analysis.” Captain Ismail added that the company also takes guidance from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and individual states.

This was significant because it is the first time that Malaysia Airlines has talked about its own analysis on route safety and I decided to ask what I thought was a pretty straight-forward follow-up question. “If you say that you did your own threat assessment on whether the route taken by MH17 was safe, do you now accept that you made a mistake by allowing it to fly over Ukraine?” I asked.

I received a baffling response. Captain Ismail said: “I believe we did not make a mistake. The notice to airman was published at position tarmac on Alpha 87, restriction is surface to 32,000 feet. We filed at 35,000 feet and air traffic control gave us 32,000 feet.”

The company’s director of operations may have misunderstood my question – alternatively, he may have found a way not to answer it – by the blinding me with jargon. I’ll let you be the judge.

There are good reasons to not admit liability of course. This latest disaster may prompt an avalanche in compensation claims and legal disputes between insurers, governments and the victims’ families – another headache for Malaysia’s embattled national carrier.

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