Can Mahathir solve Malaysia Airlines’ riddle?
New investigation into Flight MH370's tragic disappearance offers few new answers, but hopes are rising the new premier can lift the sunken carrier's fortunes
An investigative report by the Malaysian government into the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines’ (MAS) Flight MH370 – which went missing shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014 – offered few new conclusions on the Beijing-bound flight.
But certain hopes are rising that new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad can manufacture a turnaround of the beleaguered national flag carrier.
The new report, released earlier this week, said that the Boeing 777-200ER plane was deliberately manipulated off course, but stopped short of apportioning specific blame.
The aircraft’s transponders were shut off without a mayday call less than an hour into the ill-fated flight carrying 239 people. As the plane left Malaysian airspace, it was soon thereafter manually turned away from its flight path, veering thousands of miles off course where it is believed to have plunged into the Indian Ocean.
“We are not of the opinion it could have been an event committed by the pilots,” said Kok Soo Chon, head of the MH370 safety investigation team. Psychiatrists assisted investigators in conducting background checks into Zaharie and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, who concluded they were “quite satisfied” with the pilots’ training and mental health.
A 2017 report released by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that Zaharie had flown a route on his home flight simulator weeks before the tragedy that was “initially similar” to the one actually taken by MH370. Many experts have speculated that Zaharie intentionally carried out a pilot suicide, which his family strongly contests.
Kok, however, added that his investigators had not ruled out the possibility that the plane’s diversion “was an unlawful interference by a third party.” Background checks into passengers undertaken by their respective countries yielded nothing suspicious. The head investigator said answers could only be conclusive if and when MH370’s wreckage is found.
Transport Minister Anthony Loke said that despite the government report being billed as a “final” report, authorities would resume the search if new, credible evidence emerged. Malaysia’s newly elected government called off a three-month search by US-based firm Ocean Infinity shortly after coming to power following its win at May 9 polls.
Mahathir’s new government has prioritized reining in fiscal expenses to curb the national debt. The previous Najib Razak-led administration engaged Ocean Infinity on a “no-find, no-fee” basis to search the southern Indian Ocean for the plane’s wreckage. The 90-day search was unsuccessful.
The Australian government, along with China and Malaysia, had previously searched a 120,000 square km area of the Indian Ocean between 2014 and 2017. The US$147 million search was likewise fruitless. No bodies have ever been recovered from the missing flight.
Fragments believed to be debris from MH370 have been found on Reunion Island and beaches in Mauritius, Tanzania, Mozambique and elsewhere. Family members of those lost on MH370 have called on the Malaysian government to renew the search and some have criticized the latest report and its perceived-as-limited scope of investigation.
Despite being no closer to solving one of commercial aviation’s greatest ever mysteries, the Malaysian report did identify a series of mistakes and emergency protocol lapses by air traffic control who failed to initiate various emergency phases when the aircraft disappeared from radars, thereby delaying search and rescue operations.
Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, who headed the country’s aviation authority when flight MH370 went missing, became the first Malaysian official to resign over the incident when he stepped down from his chairmanship on July 31, taking responsibility for protocol lapses made by the Kuala Lumpur air traffic control and their failure to alert the air force.
Malaysia’s transport ministry now intends to establish an internal committee to come up with safety recommendations and decide what possible action could be taken against the air traffic controllers on duty at Kuala Lumpur International Airport during MH370’s disappearance.
The report also ruled out other theories, including that the aircraft’s autopilot system had been compromised remotely, a scenario floated by Mahathir in past articles and interviews. He cited a little-known uninterruptible autopilot control system patented by Boeing in 2006 that enables an aircraft to be remotely piloted from the ground to counter hijacking attempts.
“Can it not be that the pilots of MH370 lost control of their aircraft after someone directly or remotely activated the equipment for seizure of control of the aircraft?” he wrote in a series of blog posts in 2014 which implied the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was withholding knowledge of MH370’s disappearance.
He reiterated his belief in the remote takeover theory in comments to The Australian newspaper in March. Kok, however, says there is “no evidence” to “support the theory that MH370 was taken over by remote control,” adding that investigators received confirmation from Boeing that none of its commercial aircraft operates such technology.
The theory that an onboard fire caused the tragedy was also ruled out by investigators after extensive tests. According to MH370’s cargo manifest, the aircraft was carrying 2.4 tons of highly flammable lithium-ion batteries and radio accessories and chargers consigned for Motorola.
The latest Malaysian government report on the air tragedy comes amid a major shakeup at Khazanah Nasional Berhad, the sovereign wealth fund which became MAS’ sole stakeholder in a US$430 million bailout in 2014 following MH370’s disappearance and the shooting down of MAS flight MH17 over Ukraine. The twin tragedies had sent the carriers’ finances into a downward spiral.
Mahathir was appointed chairman of the sovereign fund earlier this week following the resignation of all nine Khazanah board members in response to the premier’s criticism of the management of various government-linked companies. Economic Affairs Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali will serve as one of the state fund’s directors.
Mahathir now intends to restructure operations at the sovereign wealth fund to better align it with the direction of the new administration’s policies. In 2014, Khazanah implemented a five-year recovery plan for MAS, slugged as “rebuilding a national icon,” to reverse massive losses suffered and return the carrier to profitability in three years.
The national carrier was then delisted from the national stock market with a target date for a new initial public offering set for 2019. Given the airline’s underperformance and formidable competition from low-cost carriers, industry sources see few concrete signs of a turnaround, according to news reports.
MAS does not publicly reveal its financial results as it is no longer a publicly listed company, and it is unclear whether the carrier is on target to return to profitability by the second half of 2018 and meet its 2019 relisting target. The carrier’s recovery has been marred by top management retention issues following the resignations of two successive chief executives.
Peter Bellew, of Ireland’s Ryanair, took over as chief executive in July 2016, but tendered his surprise resignation after barely a year. His predecessor, Christoph Mueller, a German aviation turnaround specialist, initially oversaw the recovery plan before abruptly quitting less than a year after being hired on a three-year contract.
Malaysian media widely speculated that Khazanah had meddled in the airline’s management, prompting both of the executives’ departures, allegations that the state fund has denied. It remains to be seen what effect Khazanah’s recent management overhaul and restructuring plans will have on MAS’ ongoing recovery plan.
The carrier is now reportedly in the midst of its first financing negotiations with lenders since being restructured. Sources say Malaysian, European and Chinese banks are expected to vie to finance the purchase of nine Boeing 737 MAX planes intended to replace older 737s coming off lease deals. But sustained loss-making operations could yet stymie efforts to raise the needed capital.