By any measure the disappearance and death of 329 people is a serious event. Imagine if this were the toll of a terrorist attack in the U.S. There would be an immediate investigation into how it happened—and the results of that investigation would reveal if failures had occurred that could be fixed. The chances of covering up any of those failures would be minimal.
Yet when the tragedy involves the souls lost aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 what has followed? Two and a half years later we know virtually nothing about the investigation that is supposedly continuing. None of the responsible parties wants to talk, wants to accept any accountability, wants to respond to the continuing grief of the families who lost loved ones.
Shocking light on this scandal is shed by a veteran reporter, Christine Negroni, in a new book, The Crash Detectives, published by Penguin.
In her book Negroni writes that she was disturbed by a discovery made during her reporting that “for all the apparent effort to try to solve the mystery of MH370, authorities may not be as committed to finding out what went wrong.”
Negroni discloses the impotence of the internal auditors at Malaysia Airlines. This disclosure goes to one of the most fundamental questions: Why was Flight MH370 not equipped to report its position and condition more frequently than at half-hour intervals?
A year before the flight vanished, in April 2013, company auditors discovered that the airline was not compliant with its own rules for the frequency of essential information sent in regular bursts of data via satellite from its fleet of long-haul airliners to the airline’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. Moreover, the auditors pointed out that because of this lapse, by law the airplanes—including Flight MH370—should not have been cleared to fly.
According to the company rules, the airline was required to track its airplanes “throughout all phases of the flight to ensure that the flight is following its prescribed route, without unplanned deviation, diversion or delay.”
Being the dogged reporter that she is, Negroni discovered that the acting transport minister when MH370 was lost, Hishammuddin Hussein, knew about this audit but never revealed it when he was frequently questioned by reporters about the obvious gaps in tracking.
“The airline was informed by its own staff that it was unable to comply with tracking regulations,” Negroni told me. “So Malaysia knew it was deficient and did nothing. I don’t think any airline would roll the dice with that now.”
Negroni saw copies of the auditors’ reports but they did not say what the required frequency of messages had been and, she told me, neither the airline nor the Civil Aviation department responded to frequent requests from her for that information. She did discover that all the airline’s long haul flights now transmit those messages at five minute intervals.
Two days after the flight disappeared Hussein told a press conference in Kuala Lumpur “we have nothing to hide.”
All journalists who pursue cover-ups know that one of the hardest challenges is to know what is being covered up. Then there is the issue of motive—why is it being covered up, and by whom?
When it comes to aviation, Malaysia presents an illusion of governance. It has institutions that by name imply international standards of regulatory vigilance—a Ministry of Transport and a Department of Civil Aviation to supervise airlines, for example, and Malaysia Airlines itself has a Department of Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs (that’s who the auditors reported to). It’s when you come to question who gets appointed to these bodies and who ensures that they work as they should that it begins to look like a Potemkin charade.
Pursuing the truth in Malaysia, as Negroni did, immediately becomes ensnared in the country’s scandal-riddled politics. The prime minister, Najib Razak, has failed to explain who looted billions of dollars from a sovereign wealth fund and how nearly $700 million from that fund turned up in one of his own bank accounts. The culture that allowed this level of corruption to continue with impunity was described in an editorial in the Financial Times: “Mr Najib’s party, United Malays National Organization, has ruled the country without interruption for six decades with a mix of cash hand-outs and suppression of political opponents.”
Cronyism permeates all the national institutions, including those that for years have had oversight of commercial aviation. Inevitably, when a crisis as serious as the loss of MH370 occurs it exposes the cost of having political placemen, rather than professionals, in key positions. For example, CNN’s Richard Quest, the author of another book about MH370, interviewed Hussein more than a year after the disaster and reported: “…there is an astonishing gap in the minister’s perception of what happened and the rest of the world’s.”
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But in a regime where corruption is endemic, ascribing the failure to manage a crisis to one man’s self-denial would seem too forgiving. To all intents and purposes the Malaysian government controls and owns the investigation into Flight MH370. Before the event that government was unused to any sustained level of public scrutiny and clearly to this day remains opposed to accepting accountability.
To begin with, the internal hierarchy of the investigation is difficult to fathom. Politically the three most involved nations, and those financing the search, are Malaysia, China (152 of the passengers were Chinese), and Australia—because the crash site is closest to Australia and because of Australia’s expertise in air crash investigations.
However, a more comprehensive tally of involved parties reveals a burgeoning bureaucracy and a forest of acronyms.
At the head is the Malaysian Ministry of Transport’s Safety Investigation Team for MH370. In addition, by November 2014, there were five international partners providing specific skills: Boeing; Rolls Royce (maker of the airplane’s engines); Thales (a European aerospace conglomerate); the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board; and Australia’s equivalent of the NTSB, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
Since then more groups have been listed as involved—the Australian Defence Science and Technology Group; the French equivalent of the NTSB, the Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses, BEA; Great Britain’s Air Accident Investigation Branch; Inmarsat, the British satellite operator that identified the most likely search area; and Honeywell, the avionics company that provides systems to Boeing.
One part of the investigation appears to have grown into a minor industry, requiring technology that is not normally part of a crash inquiry: trying to pin exactly where over the southern Indian Ocean the flight ended. This is a wholly Australian-created gaggle of scientists led by the Search Strategy Working Group and the Flight Path Reconstruction Group, and includes a company called Global Environmental Modelling Systems, GEMS; the Australia, Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization, CSIRO; Geoscience Australia; and the Australian National University.
Having so many players involved must create a nightmare of an organizational chart. Who reports to whom? Who is in charge of what? When it comes to issues of transparency the ATSB has been put in the hot seat—they issue weekly updates on the search but they are not empowered to address such basic questions as, Why has the recovery of the debris washing up on beaches in the western Indian Ocean been left to amateurs? Why has not one cent been allocated to a methodical search there while $180 million has been spent on an undersea search that is so far fruitless?
Reading between the lines of ATSB news releases it’s obvious that the Australians are constrained by guidelines issued from Kuala Lumpur, guidelines intended to deflect or ignore any light being shed on the overall credibility, integrity, and competence of the investigation. The ATSB tries its best but although it is transparent about its own investigations into Australian accidents, in this case it limits its responses to reporters to technical details of the deep sea search and analysis of the debris.
Of course, one result of an egregiously opaque regime like this one is that it allows a continuing fever of crazy speculation to thrive and multiply, ranging from alien intervention to sinister plots involving intelligence agencies.
In an attempt to counter the most lunatic theories 15 current and retired aerospace and communications professionals set up a body called the MH370 Independent Group. But having swatted away some noisome parties and issued some rather prolix technical documents they have recently gone dormant. They have probably succumbed to the kind of exhaustion that overtook those tasked to watch the Kremlin in the darkest days of the Cold War. Indeed, circling the MH370 investigation to probe it for clues is a new kind of Kremlinology, driven by a sense of duty but mostly ending in futility.
The people who suffer most from the Malaysian cover-up are the families of the passengers and crew. In September the High Court in Kuala Lumpur allowed an application for a general discovery document to go ahead, brought by 76 family members (66 Chinese, eight Indians, and two Americans). The families are asking for the release of 37 documents, including communications, correspondence, documents, notes, and investigators’ reports. The civil suit names those holding the documents as the Malaysian Airlines System, the Director General of the Department of Civil Aviation, the Royal Malaysian Air Force, and the government.
This is one of a number of occasions when the Malaysian judiciary has shown a rare independence from the political regime. (As a reprisal, the removal of judges by the government is a risk.)
The outcome of this suit remains to be seen.
The time has surely arrived when the responsibility for the investigation can no longer be left to the Malaysians. Other parties to the investigation with reputations for integrity to uphold, like the crash investigators from the U.S., Britain, France, and Australia, as well as Boeing, should end this farrago. After all this time, they cannot any longer hide behind the defense that the investigation is continuing and, calling up the lawyers, assert that as long as it is they are obligated not to comment.
It ought to be straightforward to distinguish between what is known and what remains unknown about what happened on that night in March 2014. That would be a start toward transparency. It is not a mark of failure to admit that much remains unknown or even unknowable, at least until more substantial evidence, like the flight data recorders, is discovered. And even if it is not, and in the end the mystery remains a mystery, there must still be accountability for the way the investigation has so far been handled. There surely must be no doubt now that the investigation of Flight MH370 is unfit for purpose.