Like most of us, I’ve been glued to CNN and my various news readers online for the past week, following coverage of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 disaster which killed all 298 on board. It wasn’t long ago that I was just as fixated for more than a month on the coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 when it went missing in March.
Lighting Doesn’t Strike Twice, or Does it?
Not long after the disappearance of MH370, I was speaking with a friend who had an upcoming flight on Malaysia Airlines from LAX to Bali via Kuala Lumpur. She had some anxiety about it, naturally, but also confidence in the theory that “lightning doesn’t strike twice, at least not so soon.”
That would have been what I’d tell myself too, if I were flying Malaysia after the 370 disappearance, or flying Asiana after the disaster in San Francisco, or any number of examples.
I remember flying to Paris from JFK on TWA in August of 1996, just a month after the TWA flight 800 disaster. The first 12 minutes of the flight were absolutely silent, until we got past the time frame when that flight went down.
But here we are, just a mere months after MH370 was dominating the headlines, and again – a tragedy for Malaysia Airlines. Lightning struck twice. There’s goes the common sense theory.
“Even if this is pure coincidence, it’s never happened in history that a flag carrier has seen two wide-body aircraft disappearing in a few months,” said Bertrand Grabowski, head of aviation at DVB Bank, which acts as a banker to Malaysia Airlines.
Dealing with Flight Anxiety
I don’t like hearing about airplane emergencies. They freak me out. Even when nothing bad happens. So when something like MH370 happens, not to mention 9-11 or any other number of tragedies, it’s hard to forget. Over the years, it’s created flight anxiety and I deal with it as best as I can.
What typically gets me through is that I try to tell myself this — “The pilots probably don’t want to die either. They want to get us there safely too, so they’re going to do everything in their power to do so.” (I have a whole other list of things I do to stay calm while flying, but that’s a topic for a future post… )
When we board a plane, we put our faith and trust in the pilots, the airlines, and those whose job it is to keep us safe. I worry about any number of things going wrong every time I fly, but getting hit by a missile at 33,00 feet? That wasn’t one. Now I feel compelled to check actual flight routes before booking an airline!
My Experience with Malaysia Airlines
I flew Malaysia Airlines in December from LAX to Kotu Kinabalu via Tokyo/Narita. I was impressed with the airline. It wasn’t filled with all the bells and whistles that some of the newer business class cabins are, but it was clean, comfortable (in both business and economy, which we flew on the return flight), the food was decent, the flight was smooth, on time for arrivals and departures, and the flight attendants and staff all around were absolutely lovely. As an introduction to the country, that matters, and it was excellent service.
So when the news of MH 370 hit, it was another tragedy beyond comprehension. The loss has remained a mystery and so very sad. And now this. At first, I wanted to share how sad I was for the airline and the lovely people of Malaysia, which I am. It’s a beautiful country, with friendly people, gorgeous scenery, beautiful beaches, luxurious resorts, and rich culture. But with the latest news, I was conflicted on my thoughts about the airline.
Why Did They Fly That Route?
I have questions and concerns that I know many are sharing right now, not just with regard to Malaysia Airlines, but all airlines:
- How are flight paths determined?
- Who decides what’s safe and what’s not?
- Where does the buck stop?
- Why were they flying over this region when they knew of the dangers?
- Why did they not take the same detour as other airlines, like Qantas and British Airways for example?
Maybe at the wrong place at the wrong time, but it seems this region was the wrong place to be flying any time.
From my understanding and the news coverage I’ve read and watched, aviation authorities do not have an official obligation to warn airlines of the dangers in certain flight routes. It is the responsibility of the airline to approve the flight path and at the airline’s discretion to request for a re-route. If the route is changed and a certain detour is added that adds time to the flight, more jet fuel will be required and thus more money to pay for it.
Paraphrasing one of the guests on Anderson Cooper’s AC360 program two days ago, he made a point that we don’t know what the culture of the airline is – whether the pilot felt pressured to keep flights as economical as possible, or whether there was complacency about such dangers. I’m not sure how much jet fuel a five-minute detour would cost, but whatever the cost, it can’t possibly be worth 298 lives.
History of Other Civilian Planes Being Shot Down
From eGlobal Travel Media:
The surface-to-air missile technology which brought down MH370 is not new, so neither is the threat. The model of BUK missile system used is believed to date from the Soviet era and have a range of about 22 kilometres. That extends far beyond the maximum height of any civilian airliner.
Although a dreadful atrocity with major loss of life, MH17 is not the first civilian plane to have been shot down. Such tragic events have happened a number of times – although they are still extremely rare.
Previously, the most notorious shoot-down incident involving a large wide-bodied airliner, with loss of life comparable to last week’s MH17 disaster, was Korean Air Lines flight 007. A Soviet fighter jet shot down that civilian airliner, a B747, on 1 September 1983, after the Korean airliner strayed into Russian airspace near a sensitive military zone and did not respond when challenged. All 269 passengers and crew on KL007 died after the fighter jet fired a missile into the airliner.
Neither is MH17 the first time a surface-to-air missile has been used to shoot down a civilian airliner. Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870 crashed in the Tyrrhenian Sea on 27 June 1980 shortly after takeoff from Bologna, Italy. Overwhelming evidence that the flight was brought down by a missile was eventually confirmed by Italy’s top criminal court. The plane was a DC-9 and 81 people died.
In 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 (IR655) was flying from Bandar Abbas in Iran to Dubai. The plane, an Airbus A300, was shot down by the US Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes. The ship fired a surface-to-air missile, hitting the plane and killing all 290 people aboard, including 66 children and 16 crew. Tension between the US and Iran was at its height and USS Vincennes apparently mistook the A300 for an attacking Iranian F-14 fighter jet.
It’s worth noting that those incidents occurred over the sea. The latest horror, over land in a war zone, with subsequent difficulties in reaching the bodies, has produced even worse publicity.
How Will This Change Flying?
I hope we learn from what happened and airlines will factor in to their flight plans or paths the potential dangers from flying over areas with political instabilities, in addition to any other potential danger.
In fact, news broke two days ago that Delta Air Lines suspended flights to Israel’s main international airport because of reports about a nearby rocket attack. Citing “reports of a rocket or associated debris” near Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Delta suspended service between its hub in New York and Tel Aviv “to ensure the safety and security of our customers and employees.”
All other American airlines followed suit and today the FAA extended the ban for another 24 hours with safety in the area remaining uncertain. Governor Bloomberg can say it’s overreacting or awarding Hamas, but if I was considering a flight there right now, I’d cancel too. This isn’t a political statement in any way – it has nothing to do with politics for me. It’s about safety and taking every precaution, even if some feel it’s a little overdone. Better to err on the side of caution – every. single. time.
Canceling flights to Israel is most definitely putting a damper on the country’s economy with tourism being a major source of income, and that’s a shame. But can you blame the tourists who are hesitant to go right now, when sirens are going off at the airport warning travelers to get to a shelter?
It will not stop me from traveling, and it will not stop me from visiting Israel again one day or flying on Malaysia Airlines again, but reflecting on it and asking questions helps ease some of the anxiety. The point is that we need to keep talking about it and make the changes necessary to ensure everyone’s safety when traveling. It’s unfortunate that it took such a tragic loss to call attention to the reality that missiles can indeed hit a commercial airline at cruising altitude.
Malaysia Airlines posted the following on a few days ago. We, too, share our deepest condolences for the families and loved ones of those lost