Crisis in the sky

Following the sudden disappearance of flight MH370, Malaysia Airlines faced serious challenges in their efforts to engage relatives of the passengers and other stakeholders with compassion and accuracy.



Flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur on March 8 2014 for Beijing, China. Approximately two hours into the flight, all contact with the aircraft was lost and the start of the most intense search in aviation history began.

At around 4:00 on that Saturday morning I was on my way to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) to take a flight to Borneo for a conference. On receipt of the emergency call-out message, my driver diverted me to the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) which fortunately is located at the Malaysia Airlines Flight Operations building at KLIA.

I walked into the EOC less than five minutes after the call-out. Communications were already underway between the airline, air traffic control and to all aircraft that were in the vicinity of MH370’s last known position to advise of any sightings. Initially, the aircraft was believed to have gone down in the South China Sea as the last contact with the aircraft was while it was still in Malaysia airspace and heading towards Vietnam.

During the next several hours, the EOC team commenced their responsibilities. As head of commercial, I had already activated our emergency phone lines and my call centre was updated on the appropriate messaging to be provided to callers inquiring about the missing aircraft. On the e-commerce side of the business, the dark site was activated and all commercial advertising for travel on Malaysia Airlines was removed and replaced with a brief message advising customers of the emergency contact numbers in relation to the missing aircraft. In parallel, the commercial team in Beijing was fully activated and the emergency response procedures activated to organise hotel accommodations and bus transportation to take Next of Kin (NOK) to the hotels once the news broke that MH370 was missing. Around 8:00 on Saturday morning, MH370 was scheduled to arrive in Beijing.

Family members would be at the airport to meet their relatives but no aircraft would arrive. Accordingly, the first press conference took place in Kuala Lumpur around that time and the world was informed of the missing aircraft. It should be noted that up until this time there was still hope that the aircraft was experiencing communication difficulties as no distress signals or information on a crashed aircraft had been reported. In Kuala Lumpur, the airline’s Caregiver Team was activated and an aircraft identified to transport the caregivers to Beijing. Emphasis was placed on Mandarin-speaking staff and in addition the airline activated our relationship with the Buddhist Tzu Chi organisation to provide Mandarin-speaking support in Beijing.

I was appointed as head of the Go Team as the most senior executive with active responsibility for all the airline’s stations. The Go Team departed KLIA around 16:00 for Beijing to the Lido Hotel, where the majority of the NOK were accommodated and where the first press conference in Beijing was given. Malaysia Airlines arranged bus transportation to take NOK to and from their hotel to the Lido Hotel which was designated as the primary venue where all family briefings and press conferences would take place.

Press conference
The first press conference took place around midnight on Saturday March 8, some 16 hours after the aircraft was due to land in Beijing. The press were not happy as the time was so late, the NOK were tired and extremely upset and quite frankly very angry at the airline. The fact that it takes time to organise a relief aircraft and then fly for eight hours to Beijing was not appreciated by any of the press or the NOK.

One of my senior colleagues who is ethnically Chinese was allocated to my team as we believed it would be respectful and appropriate. Unfortunately my colleague did not speak Mandarin and this lack of Mandarin skills actually worked against us rather than helped. The local Chinese thought he was being arrogant in only speaking English at the press conference. Following that event, it was decided that the best course of action was to send him back to Kuala Lumpur.

The time delay as a result of the flight time to Beijing also introduced significant management and administration issues in Beijing. The majority of the NOK were already accommodated in the hotel and when we attempted to provide ID cards to identify NOK, we were faced with stiff resistance. The hotels obviously wanted to know who were legitimate NOK, who were media and who were individuals simply attempting to get a free stay in a hotel with all meals provided. This problem became exacerbated over the next several days as the total number of NOK reached some 1400 people.

In a situation in which the media had also taken up rooms at the hotel (at their own expense) it was virtually impossible to separate the media from the NOK. The NOK actually assisted the airline in that they ordered unique T-shirts regarding MH370 and the NOK were very rigorous in ensuring that only legitimate NOK were able to receive a T-shirt. The identification problem was resolved by the NOK themselves.
During the next many weeks, my Caregiver Team performed incredibly well under the most extreme pressure and often hostile attitude from some NOK. This is not to say all NOK were hostile. In fact the majority of the NOK were simply overcome with tremendous feelings of grief and sorrow for their lost family members. However it only requires a small number of individuals with an agenda to collaborate and start shouting abuse and accusations to get the immediate attention of the world media.

"Most people are simply not familiar with this level of media attention and scrutiny."

To address these issues, the airline provided separate daily verbal briefings to the NOK and the media. These were presented in English and then Mandarin. Written versions of the briefings were also published in both languages. This also gave rise to some tense moments as we rapidly came to appreciate that Mandarin as spoken by the Chinese community in Malaysia is not the same as the Mandarin spoken and written in Beijing. Small changes in tonal expressions and the use of words that had one meaning in Malaysia but a different interpretation in Beijing caused some tense moments. Similarly, I was originally using one of my Beijing sales staff who is fluent in English and Mandarin as my translator for all my family and media briefings. This was not a good idea.

My local Chinese sales staff wanted to protect me from the worst of the statements and accusations being shouted by the NOK. My staff would tone down the statements in their translation. This meant that I was responding to NOK questions in a manner that did not reflect the real intent of the questions. Recognising this as a major issue, we attempted to contract a professional translator in Beijing. However this was easier said than done as the vast majority of the Chinese translators did not want to get involved in this crisis. Finally we located a translator that was willing to work with the airline. He was European but had been living and working in Beijing for some 14 years and was a registered official translator.

At my next family and media briefing I introduced my new translator and received some strange looks from the NOK when they saw a European stand up and be presented as my translator. All these strange looks changed the moment he started speaking in fluent Mandarin with a Beijing accent. For the first time I saw smiles on the faces of the NOK and I knew we had made a major breakthrough in the relationship with them. The Caregiver Team received amazing support from the local authorities in Beijing, medical support for the NOK and police support for security was first class. When I made the announcement to the NOK that they should expect the worst as there had been no sighting of the aircraft for some 33 hours, the situation in the Lido meeting room became very tense and that was when I first encountered the Chinese expression of anger towards a person in that several of the NOK started throwing water bottles at me and my leadership staff. I was subsequently informed by the police that they had many undercover officers in the meeting room and that we were in no real danger. Apparently, throwing water bottles is an accepted form of anger and the police would only step in if the NOK started throwing hard objects at us.

It would have been good to know that information prior to the briefing.

Questions and lessons
While I was managing the activities in Beijing and liaising with the Chinese authorities, the search for MH370 had migrated from the South China Sea to the South Indian Ocean. Much commentary and speculation was taking place regarding the mysterious disappearance of MH370: was it a terrorist act, was the crew responsible or was it the lithium-ion batteries? The most intense search in aviation history was now underway and at peak some 23 countries were involved in the investigation.

The truth is that even today, more than one year after the disappearance of the aircraft, no-one knows what happened to the aircraft and it is unfortunate that there is a distinct possibility that the black box recorders on the aircraft might never be recovered. This would be a very poor outcome as the airline, the NOK and everyone involved in the search effort is 100 per cent committed to finding the answers to the disappearance of the aircraft.

An important learning from the MH370 tragedy was the importance of having extremely accurate information and that when a script was prepared for a briefing the presenter stayed precisely to the script. Any deviation or personal commentary that subsequently turned out to be less than 100 per cent accurate was immediately jumped on by the media as evidence that the Malaysian authorities were not providing the whole truth and hiding information. The fact is that most people are simply not familiar with this level of media attention and scrutiny. People make statements not from any bad intent but simply as a means to try and add some futher information and perhaps, like most of us, were not perfect in their commentary.

Similarly, when politicians and government officials are not familiar with intense media scrutiny, they tend to react in ways that can easily be interpreted as hiding information. Naturally, the media rarely if ever admits to making mistakes in their reporting of events.

“An important learning was the importance of having extremely accurate information and that the presenter stayed precisely to the script.” 

Other aspects of the MH370 tragedy were the unfortunate fact that the world is inhabited by a wide variety of people with different motives and agendas. As an example, immediately following the first press release announcing the loss of the aircraft, the phone calls started arriving at our contact centre stating that they had seen the aircraft and it was on some island or other. Others had the aircraft spirited away to an island in Malaysia, others that the aircraft was in Diego Garcia. There was a whole range of conspiracy theories covering the gamut from US-China intrigue to exploding fruit to terrorist actions. In the earliest days of the missing aircraft each and every one of these calls had to be investigated and evaluated.

It should be noted that even official information from well recognised international government agencies were found to be in error. At no stage however did we jump to the conclusion that these agencies were attempting to mislead the airline. When dealing with communications and people, errors will inevitably arise.

The disappearance of MH370 is an enormous tragedy for the passengers and crew and for the family members that still wait and hope for news on the location of the aircraft so that they can get some closure and allow them to move on with their lives.

The search for MH370 continues.

Image: Flickr / byeangel


Hugh Dunleavy

Until May 2015, Dr Hugh Dunleavy was commercial director of Malaysian Airlines, a position he held from July 2012. Prior to that, Hugh was the company’s executive vice president of Network, Alliances, Strategy and Planning. Before joining Malaysian Airlines, Hugh worked at Westjet from 2004 to 2011. He has also held leadership positions in, among others, Lufthansa Systems – Americas, Air Canada and Star Alliance. Currently, Hugh is chief commercial officer at Qatar Airways.