Crisis Management Lessons: How Two Asian Airlines Responded to Disasters

AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines Handled Communications Very Differently

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AirAsia Group Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes said he was flying to Surabaya, Indonesia with the airline's management.
AirAsia Group Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes said he was flying to Surabaya, Indonesia with the airline's management. Credit: Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg

Indonesia's search for a downed AirAsia Bhd. plane avoided the missteps that plagued the still fruitless hunt for a Malaysian jet that disappeared almost 10 months ago.

"The Indonesian government and AirAsia have responded more rapidly and with more accuracy to their customers, family members, and the media in general in comparison to the Malaysian accidents," said Curt Lewis, president of Curt Lewis & Associates in Arlington, Texas, an airline safety and accident investigation consultant. "Perhaps a learned lesson of what not to do."

Indonesian search crews have recovered debris and six bodies floating in the sea from the AirAsia plane that went missing on Sunday with 162 people on board. By contrast, not a single piece of wreckage has been found from Malaysian Airline System Bhd. Flight 370, which vanished March 8 on the way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

The airline and the Malaysian government's handling of the crisis were criticized for a lack of urgency in the initial hours, transparency in releasing information and coordination on where to search. The hunt for MH370 is the longest in the history of modern aviation.

"There was a reluctance to admit that they had a problem, a reluctance to admit they had screwed up because they didn't do anything for about the first four or five hours, a reluctance to admit they didn't have the necessary resources and the capability to resolve this problem, which just kept getting bigger and bigger," Desmond Ross, principal of DRA Professional Aviation Services in Sydney, Australia, said of Malaysia's search. "They dug a hole for themselves that was so deep they couldn't climb out."

MH370 Mystery

The disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing Co. 777-200 jet has baffled authorities as contact was lost less than an hour into the journey with no emergency warnings. A search continues across 23,000 square miles of the southern Indian Ocean, an area about twice the size of Belgium. The company's hunt was further hampered by the July loss of Flight 17, a casualty of the conflict in eastern Ukraine with the plane shot down en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. MH17 was carrying 298 passengers and crew.

Indonesia and AirAsia avoided the pitfalls that hindered the response to the MH370 disaster and were open about asking for help, Ross said. The search teams have now used sonar to detect a larger part of QZ8501 under water.

"This whole AirAsia thing has been handled in a better way," he said. "They just leaped straight in, all hands to the pump and have sort of gone for it, which is a much better scenario."

Easier Search

There were other factors making the search for AirAsia easier than the one for Flight 370, including the shallow depth and smaller area of the search zone, and a more accurate assessment of the plane's last know position, John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, told Bloomberg Television.

"We have a lot more information with this plane than we have with the others," he said.

Malaysia Airlines offered assistance to AirAsia after its plane disappeared off the coast of Borneo, a company spokeswoman said. It was unclear if that offer was taken up.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's office referred queries to Hishammuddin Hussein, who was acting Transport Minister when MH370 was lost. There was no response to two text messages sent to Hishammuddin's mobile phone.

Malaysia Criticism

The Malaysia Airlines plane vanished in March after a system that transmits a jet's location was shut off. The way the plane then turned off course toward Malaysia and out into the ocean convinced investigators someone sought to cloak its path, according to Najib. Officials estimated MH370's likely final location by analyzing hourly pings between the plane and a satellite.

Malaysia came under fire from families of those on board Flight 370 and foreign governments. Vietnam, which took part in the search, expressed concern about early coordination efforts and said Malaysian officials weren't responsive to requests for information. China, which had 154 nationals on board, noted the lack of progress in the search and called for greater transparency. Some family members accused the government of a cover-up when it announced the plane was lost in the Indian Ocean with no survivors.

'More Zeal'

Malaysia's government, which has been led for more than 50 years by the same political coalition, appeared caught off guard by the criticism. Indonesia's government, which took office in October, is led by Joko Widodo, whose rapid rise to the presidency was built on a reputation for being a man of the people known to take unscheduled walks to chat with the public.

"The Indonesians seem to have reacted much quicker, with more zeal, and have been more welcoming of international support, than the Malaysians," said Richard Bitzinger, coordinator of the military transformations program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies inSingapore. "The Indonesians haven't been as secretive or defensive, or as hostile toward outside criticism."

Since the disappearance of Flight 370 Malaysia Airlines has delisted, unveiled a 6 billion-ringgit ($1.7 billion) restructuring package aimed at restoring profitability in three years, and hired a new chief executive officer, former Aer Lingus Group Plc chief Christoph Mueller. The airline, which traces its beginnings to the 1930s, will cut its workforce to 14,000 from 20,000.

'Sad Time'

AirAsia Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes, a Malaysian, has taken a hands-on approach to the disaster at his airline, shuttling back and forth between the airport at Surabaya where the plane took off and Jakarta, and engaging the public on social media. "We will go through this terrible ordeal together," he said in a Twitter post the day the plane disappeared.

Once debris was discovered and bodies found he offered his condolences to the families of passengers, tweeting: "Words cannot express how sorry I am."

Malaysia Airlines in a statement yesterday sent its condolences to those affected by the AirAsia disaster.

"As an airline that has recently experienced such great sadness, we stand in solidarity to offer our thoughts and prayers to everyone affected by this tragedy and with the team at AirAsia," it said. "This is indeed a sad time for everyone working in aviation and for all guests who fly."

-- Bloomberg News --

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