PlanB Consulting

02/04/2014 Mystery of flight MH370

This week Charlie writes about the ill-fated Malaysian airliner flight MH370.


I was putting off writing about this incident as I was waiting for this mystery to be solved.

Although some progress has been made in the search, it seems that there are still more questions than answers.

The sad truth is that we may never get to the bottom of what happened. There are, however, still things that we can learn that can be applied in future to help avoid some of the confusion and chaos that has characterised this incident.

Both the authorities and airline involved have been heavily criticised for their poor communication with the families of the missing.

Although this is a very unusual incident, in that it is extremely rare for an aeroplane to go missing for such a long time, I still believe there are things that are applicable here for the future.

1. For Malaysian Airways this is a classic creeping crisis. At first they thought they understood the incident, they had an aircraft crash on their hands. Most airlines have plans in place for this type of incident and their plans were obviously put into action. They had a “dark website” which they activated to provide information on the incident, they adopted their social media plan and they immediately gathered together the relatives of those missing on the plane and put them up in a hotel while the search took place. On the whole a pretty textbook response.  For an excellent analysis of the incident response, check the Agnes and Day website.

Why this has turned into a creeping crisis for the airline is that the plane wasn’t found immediately. This meant a long time spent in the response stage without moving into recovery. The longer the incident went on without the plane being recovered, the more speculation there was and the more information came out which has not declared at the beginning of the incident. Whereas their initial response went well, the longer the mystery went unsolved, the more criticism they received. It is likely that the public worldwide lasting impression of Malaysian Airways response to the incident will be how they failed to handle this incident properly. And as we all know – “perception is reality”.

2. When training people I always say: “no incident follows the plan exactly and you will always have to do some hot planning on the day”. This is a classic example. I am sure that Malaysian Airlines didn’t have plans for losing their aircraft for all that time and dealing with the pressure on them of not knowing what happened. A large majority of aeroplanes crash on landing or take-off and so information on what happened is fairly quickly available. I suspect that not knowing the facts for such a long time was not in their plan and they have had to make it up as they went along.

3. Information management is always difficult in an incident and there is always huge demand from the relatives and the public for information. For the organisation seen as responsible for the incident, there is the pressure of trying to provide appropriate information and trying to get all available information into the public domain, so that they are not seen as trying to hide something. Where there is an information gap then this is filled by experts, self-confessed experts and rumours. In this case the information management has been very poor. The information on what happened has been very contradictory with the possible search areas changing several times. Information has come out slowly on the route of the aircraft and whether the transponder was deliberately switched off. This has all led to making the airline and the Malaysian Government look incompetent. It also raises the question – why wasn’t the available information from satellites and from military radar asked for at the beginning of the incidents? A key part of incident management is horizon scanning and knowing where pertinent information might be found on the incident.

4. Finally, coming back to a theme we have talked about on this blog before. However good your safety systems they can always be overcome by a human. If the transponder-tracking device was deliberately switched off this was done for a reason, possibly so that the path of the aircraft could not be tracked. Secondly if it was a suicide there is perhaps little we can do to prevent this happening, especially by an expert who knows the aircraft systems and how to get around them. If humans want to cause an incident and they are very determined there is only so much reasonably we can do to put systems in place to prevent this happening.

About Charlie Maclean-Bristol

Charlie Maclean-Bristol is one of the Founders and Directors of PlanB Consulting. He is also the Training Director of Business Continuity Training Ltd., a UK-based training provider accredited by the Business Continuity Institute. Charlie is a former Business Continuity Institute board member and one of the very few Fellows of both the Emergency Planning Society and the Business Continuity Institute.

A former Infantry Captain in the British Army, Charlie held several emergency planning, business continuity and crisis management positions within the energy and utility industry before founding PlanB Consulting in 2007. Over the past twelve years, Charlie has delivered business continuity consultancy in 6 of the worlds 7 continents, frequently providing full business continuity roll-outs to organisations of all sizes and in all sectors.

Scroll to Top