By Rajan Philips –
That we are flying through the safest period in aviation history will not be solace to anyone after the disappearance and downing of two Malaysian passenger planes in a span of 131 days. The first, Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared mysteriously on 8 March 2014, and despite the biggest search operation ever launched on this planet, no one has any clue as to where the plane and its 227 passengers and 12 crew members are resting. Just last Thursday, the Malaysia Airlines, now known in every household in the world for sorrowfully wrong reasons, lost its second passenger plane. Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was brought down four hours after take-off by surface-to-air missile fired from the senseless Russo-Ukrainian theatre of war 33,000 feet below. There is no need for a search operation this time. The plane and its 283 passengers and 15 crew members are burnt and strewn over the farm fields of Grabovo, a village in eastern Ukraine. The tragedy has been ranked as the fourth deadliest single-plane disaster in aviation history and the deadliest disaster brought about by human mischief. The tragedy is unspeakable and the ramifications are unescapable.
As safety statistics go, the fourteen years of this century have been the safest period in aviation since 1946, the end of the Second World War and the start of commercial aviation and passenger flights. Only six individual years have had fewer than 600 air crash fatalities after 1946. The first was in 1955 and the last five of them have been in this century: 2004, 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013. The last two 2012 and 2013 have been the safest years after 1946 – just under 500 fatalities in 2012 and about 250 in 2013. The tally to-date for this year is already 594, 537 of them counted against the struggling Malaysia Airlines. There might be an upward spike before the year ends, but the safety trend is unlikely to be reversed. The trend is all the more impressive considering the huge expansion in air travel in recent years. The worst decade in aviation safety was the 1970s, with 2500 fatalities recorded in 1972. Over the forty years from 1960 to 2000, there were only six years where fatalities were less than 1000. In this century this threshold has been breached only twice – in 2002 and 2005.
Death, disaster and tragedy are part of human life, but nothing matches the drama and the spectacle of an aviation disaster. Far more people die in road accidents and violent conflicts in a year, in any country, than they do in airplane crashes. Yet, an air crash anywhere grips the entire world instantly while a road accident will hardly be heard or noticed beyond 100 metres up or down the road. More people have been killed in Gaza since the recent conflict began than in the air disaster on Thursday. Yet, there is no universal condemnation of the state of Israel and its belligerent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, unlike the universal reprobation unleashed at the perpetrators who blew Flight MH17 out of the predawn sky. Netanyahu shows no remorse, launches ground offensive in Gaza, and receives no reprimand in the west. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is visibly shaken by the incident, denies responsibility, and is dumped on in the western media.
Perhaps people everywhere can relate to the victims of a midair tragedy anywhere more easily than to any disaster on the ground. Along with the human fascination with flying there is natural empathy for airplane passengers who travel as virtual captives in comfort with no control over anything and utterly dependent on the aviation system for their safe travel. The entire industry is under great scrutiny for improving technology and enhancing safety. The current safety trends reflect this and there is universal panic whenever there is a mishap. The uproar over Flight MH17 is understandable given all the security checks that passengers are put through before boarding the plane and then to have it shot down in full flight by criminal miscreants from down below. No other airline has had the misfortune of two tragedies in four months like Malaysia Airlines. Its brand has been tarnished and its finances are in trouble. The two tragedies have also touched other countries and people in intimate ways.
The two tragedies
The tragedy of Flight MH370 is still a mystery. What caused the disappearance of the plane is still unknown and nothing will be known until the remains of the plane are found. The unsuccessful search so far has shown the limits of our resources in reaching to the depths of the ocean. The tragedy also exposed the unpreparedness of even a country like Malaysia to handle a very public tragedy and crisis. It further showed that the need for international coordination and cooperation in dealing with aviation safety and averting disasters. The task is too much for any country to handle single handedly unless the tragedy involves the crashing of a domestic flight. The Malaysian government and its airlines are clear of any blame in the tragedy of Flight MH17, and they seem to have learnt their lesson in crisis management after the March tragedy.
The question will of course be asked in Malaysia, if not elsewhere, as to why the airlines took the route it did flying over eastern Ukraine. Airlines tend to take the shortest flight path to save fuel, and have been given the license to fly over conflict areas at over 10,000 metres. Flight MH17 was doing just that at 33,000 feet, but it was hit apparently by a missile launched from an SA-17 Buk 2 surface-to-air missile system with a range of 72,000 feet. British Airways and Air France had started avoiding the flight route even before the tragedy. Now everyone will follow suit. And airlines may choose to avoid flight routes through the Middle East now that the certainty of safe flight path has been breached in the downing of Flight MH17. That would mean longer routes, higher cost, and more burning of the polluting aviation fuel. Finding the truth about what happened, who fired the missile, and how protocols were broken will have a huge bearing in the selection of future flight routes and air travel costs and safety.
It is now established that Flight MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air-missile fired from an area in eastern Ukraine under the control of pro-Russian rebels. The rebels have denied any role in this and blamed the Ukrainian government. The latter has called the missile launch a war against the world by the rebels with Russian support. Vladimir Putin has technically put the blame on the Ukrainian government as the incident occurred on the sovereign territory of Ukraine. This is going round in circles because Putin stands accused of aiding and abetting in the violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty by pro-Russian separatists. By all appearances, Mr. Putin seemed shaken by the catastrophe but whether that is enough to change his mind and Russia’s position on Ukraine is a different matter.
The US government had imposed a new set of sanctions on Russia days before the disaster and is ready with additional sanctions after the disaster. President Obama and Prime Minister Putin have been keeping their lines of communication open and it was during their last conversation that the news about Flight MH17 was first conveyed to Putin by his staff. Unfortunately high level communications do not prevent rogue actors on the ground creating havoc on the ground. “There’s always a son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word” – President Kennedy is said to have railed after a rogue US pilot flew into Russia on his own and without orders creating unnecessary US-Soviet tension during the Cold War. There were quite a few of them on the Russian side in the shooting down of the Korean passenger plane in 1983. The US Republicans are calling for a similar isolation of Russia now as was done in 1983. Unlike the Republicans, President Obama gets it that America is in a different world now and that the US can do little on its own. The world is different now not only because there are no super powers, but also and more dangerously because there are too many out-of-control actors in conflict areas with access to sophisticated weapons and with no restraint against using them.
The expectation after Flight MH17 tragedy is that Mr. Putin should call off his support of the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and facilitate a peaceful resolution to the crisis. But pressure should be brought on all sides to find a solution. Apart from the Malaysian government, the European community has a huge stake in finding out what happened and holding the perpetrators responsible for their action. Dutch passengers were the largest contingent on Flight MH17, and the Prime Minister of Netherlands, Mark Rutte, has vowed to bring to book those responsible for causing this tragedy. This will be a new twist because Netherlands is one of Russia’s largest trading partners and until now has not been too much in favour of harsh European sanctions against Russia matching the US sanctions. But there will be no twist or turn for the victims and no mitigation of grief for their families and friends. The crash killed in one fell swoop dozens of international experts in HIV research who were heading to a conference in Australia. Their fraternity and its beneficiaries are devastated. For all of their sake, the governments of the world must ensure that at least the skies are safe even if they cannot stop killing on the ground.