KUALA LUMPUR—Malaysia drew criticism at home and abroad on Tuesday for announcing that a missing passenger jet with 239 people aboard had been lost at sea, even before any wreckage was found.
The country’s flag carrier also received ire for informing some relatives of the plane’s loss by text message, although it insisted this had been a “last resort”.
The authorities temporarily stopped the search for the missing jet because of bad weather, but aviation experts said even if the jet’s “black box” was miraculously found from the depths of the Indian Ocean, it is unlikely that that would solve what has been called one of aviation’s greatest mysteries.
A sombre Prime Minister Najib Razak said Monday that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished more than two weeks ago, had “ended in the southern Indian Ocean”.
He cited fresh analysis of satellite tracking data and said the information was being shared “out of a commitment to openness and respect for the families.”
Malaysian authorities have received repeated criticism for perceived secretiveness and contradictory information since the plane fell off air traffic control screens on March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and Najib’s announcement drew further criticism.
Scores of Chinese relatives marched on Malaysia’s embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, shouting slogans including “The Malaysian government are murderers”.
And China’s government demanded authorities in Kuala Lumpur hand over the new satellite data.
Malaysia Airlines insisted that it was doing best to handle relatives with care and dignity, and had tried to spread Najib’s message with tact before the prime minister spoke.
“Wherever humanly possible, we did so in person with the families or by telephone, using SMS only as an additional means of ensuring fully that the nearly 1,000 family members heard the news from us and not from the media,” said airline chief executive officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.
The carrier added that it had deployed more than 700 “dedicated caregivers” to support the next-of-kin, who have been given hotel accommodation as well as initial financial assistance of $5,000 per passenger with more on the way.
“Our sole motivation last night... was that the families heard the tragic news before the world did,” Ahmad Jauhari said at a news conference, which featured pointed questioning from Chinese journalists.
“There are no words which can ease that pain.”
Bridget Welsh, an expert on Malaysian politics at the Singapore Management University, said the authorities’ intentions were good but the means of breaking the news could have been improved.
“The use of SMS messages even for additional communication could have been rethought. I imagine every time a person looks at their phone they will be reminded of their loss,” she told AFP.
Paul Yap, an aviation lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore, said Najib should have delayed his announcement until debris confirmed as coming from the plane had been found.
Online criticism abounded, together with messages of condolences for the victims -- two-thirds of them from China.
“How can Malaysian government declare flight ‘ended’ in Indian Ocean but with no physical evidence?? #MH370 #dontbelieveit,” one user posted.
“Malaysian airlines and government concealed and delayed information then tells news of dead relatives by text. #disgusting #MH370,” another said.
The Malaysian government, which has held daily press briefings, has insisted it is passing on information as promptly as it can.
“The government has never stopped information from reaching the families,” Najib said in parliament on Tuesday, adding it was his “responsibility” to keep them updated.
Gerry Soejatman, an independent aviation consultant based in Jakarta, said Najib’s announcement marked a “sad day, but at the end of it, we have to be realistic”.
“It was the right thing to do to go ahead and announce, but I understand the frustration of the people. Sadly, the Malaysian government is in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ kind of situation,” Soejatman said.
“They were criticized for waiting for verification because it meant delays in disseminating information, and now they are being criticized for releasing information as soon as they can.”
Although the search was suspended Tuesday, planes, ships and state-of-the-art tracking equipment are hunting for any trace of the passenger jet, which Malaysia said crashed in the forbidding waters after veering far from its intended course.
They face a huge challenge locating the Boeing 777’s “black box”, which holds vital clues to determining what caused the plane to vanish after it took off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing on March 8.
But experts believe the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder may not yield answers on the riddle of how and why the plane diverted an hour into the flight, and embarked on a baffling journey to the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.
The data recorder details the aircraft’s path and other mechanical information for the flight’s duration, and “should provide a wealth of information”, US-based aviation consultancy firm Leeham Co said in a commentary.
But the cockpit voice recorder -- which could reveal what decisions were made by those at the helm and why -- retains only the last two hours of conversations before the plane’s demise.
That means potentially crucial exchanges surrounding the initial diversion, which took place halfway between Malaysia and Vietnam, will be lost.
“Clearly, it won’t reveal anything that happened over the Gulf of Thailand -- this will have been overwritten by the end of MH370,” it said.
Leeham added that it also remains to be seen whether the cockpit recorder will contain anything pertinent about the plane’s final two hours, when it is believed to have either ditched or run out of fuel.
While Malaysia announced that Flight MH370 had gone down in the Indian Ocean, its exact location and the circumstances of its diversion remain a mystery. No distress signal was ever received.
Three scenarios have gained particular traction: hijacking, pilot sabotage, or a sudden mid-air crisis that incapacitated flight crew and left the plane to fly on auto-pilot for several hours until it ran out of fuel.
Malaysia has said it believes the plane was deliberately diverted by someone on board.
But with the traveling public and aviation industry hanging on every twist in the drama, no firm evidence has emerged from a Malaysian investigation to support any of the theories circulating.
British aviation expert Chris Yates said that even if the black boxes are found, “it seems unlikely that we will get that answer” of why the plane ended up thousands of kilometers off course.
“We still have no idea as to the mental state of the pilot and co-pilot, we have no idea if somebody managed to get into the cockpit to seize the aircraft, and we’ve certainly had no admissions of responsibility since this whole episode started,” he told BBC television.
“It is a mystery like no other.”
Debris has been sighted far off Australia’s west coast but an international search effort has been unable to retrieve any for confirmation, and wreckage could have drifted hundreds of kilometres from where the plane crashed.
“As investigators, we deal with physical evidence and right now we don’t have any physical evidence to work with,” Anthony Brickhouse, a member of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators, told AFP.
The batteries powering the locator signal of the black boxes will run out in less than two weeks.
A US device capable of detecting that signal even on the ocean floor was being sent to the scene, but weather and treacherous sea conditions have hampered the effort to pinpoint the black box location.
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