The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is a horrible tragedy but not without precedent. The aftermath of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Pan Am Flight 103, Adam Air Flight 747, Asian Flight 214 and Air France Flight 447, among others, all held striking similarities with the missing Malaysian plane.
Their causes were initially a mystery but each disaster was eventually resolved, providing a litany of potential failures to be dealt with in the future. Among them: pilot error, improper maintenance, a hijacking gone wrong, a terrorist attack, pilot suicide, unwanted military intervention, a systemic failure or a combination of the above.
As the search across some of the busiest shipping routes in the world continues, the families and friends of those on board are understandably distraught, made worse by Malaysian authorities lurching from one hapless press conference to another offering little more but reassurances that they don’t know what happened.
No information has been forthcoming with the exception of contradictory reports about where the plane was last sighted and how long it was in the air.
Malaysian Airline System (MAS) is a government owned airline. It and its ministries are responsible and whether they like it or not will be subjected to the type of international scrutiny unseen in their country – whether it’s from the foreign press corps, Interpol, the FBI or national transportation boards and aviation investigators.
The possibilities surrounding the fate of Flight 370 are endless, although aviation engineers are saying privately that lithium batteries used to power the plane could be at fault. Overheating batteries caused Japan Airlines to ground its fleet of Boeing 787s in mid-January.
“One would also hope that the airline was not using counterfeit parts obtained from the airplane parts black market,” one aviation engineer, who declined to be named, said.
On a broader level, the Malaysian government has over recent decades struggled with corruption, religious intolerance, and ethnic differences while shunning unwanted international scrutiny of its internal affairs.
Two stolen passports used by passengers raised fears that terrorists were on board and became one focus, but this was described by one aviation engineer as a “red herring – most flights, particularly out of Malaysia are going to have passengers on board attempting to travel on false or stolen passports.”
Prior to the disappearance Interpol had warned of the dangers of stolen passports. It’s an area the Australians are acutely aware of given their experiences with people smuggling out of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Malaysian ties to known terrorists have also been under the microscope. Its commitment in dealing with terrorism was constantly compromised by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which found sanctuary in Malaysia before and after it gained notoriety for a string of bombings more than 10 years ago.
Port operators were also scrutinized three years ago amid allegations the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL) had used Malaysia for transiting nuclear material from China, a known source country, including high strength maraging steel, specialty vacuum pumps, Kevlar and carbon fiber.
Closer to home, about 200 mercenaries managed to slip through Malaysian immigration and into Sabah early last year where they launched an insurgency based on long standing, if dubious, indigenous claims. About 70 people were killed and sources at the time said they were using Malaysian travel documents.
“These are cultural and security issues which go to the heart of how the Malaysian government allows things to get done, and it’s that culture that will also come under the microscope because it is the owner and operator of MAS,” one aviation analyst, who declined to be named, said.
Even the Chinese Foreign Ministry has chipped in with concerns over Malaysian investigations, adding that it was urging “the Malaysian side to step up their efforts to speed up the investigation and provide accurate information to China in a timely fashion.”
Obviously the Malaysian government, as owner and operator of MAS, owes those on board and international authorities unfettered access to its bureaucracy, its records and all associated with the airline, whether it’s a minister who signed off on airline cutbacks or a baggage handler who might have noticed something suspicious.
If not, then Malaysia’s already tarnished reputation in international circles would have taken a dramatic turn for the worse.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt