#MH370: Still hoping for answers


stuff.co.nz

Danica Weeks

FAMILY WAITS: Danica Weeks with her sons Lincoln and Jack, and dog Bella, at their home in Perth.

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When Danica Weeks’ phone rings, her heart skips a beat.

It could be the call to say flight MH370 has been found.

“I’m waiting every minute of every day for news,” she says.

But eight months on from the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, no debris has been found. No conclusion reached. There are no bodies, no way of knowing why the plane veered off its planned route.

“I’m not the first wife to lose a husband,” Napier-born Danica tells me from her home in Perth, “but it’s the not knowing. I ask myself every day, how do you lose a plane?”

Her husband, New Zealander Paul Weeks, 39, was on his way to a Mongolian mine for his first stint of a fly-in, fly-out job when he boarded MH370.

His wife has not yet found the words to tell their children, Lincoln, 4, and Jack, 1, what happened.

“Lincoln is pretty sure Dad’s in heaven. He understands that Dad has had an accident. I can’t explain to him that it’s a plane, because I need to get him on a plane eventually. At the moment I’m just rolling with it and making sure their lives are full of fun and other things.

“People ask me when I’m going to have a memorial. I can’t have a memorial now, it would be like giving up on Paul.”

Last week would have marked Paul and Danica’s seventh wedding anniversary.

“I had a wonderful husband, a wonderful life, and everything was going really well. We had all these plans. You never picture that, at 38, you’re going to rebuild your life, and I can’t even do it yet because I don’t know where he is or how it happened. Until I know that, I can’t even start.”

With these thoughts fresh in my mind, I board flight MH124 from Perth, Western Australia, to Kuala Lumpur, with an unprecedented invitation from Malaysia Airlines to meet the people whose job it is to rejuvenate the airline.

The company has had an appalling year. First, MH370 disappeared without a trace. Then four months later, on July 17, flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot out of the skies over troubled Ukraine, allegedly by Russian-backed separatists.

READ MORE: The search: slow and painstaking progress

Compensation rejected

MH370: Full coverage

After 42 trouble-free years, the airline had lost 537 passengers and crew, including four New Zealanders and 44 Australians.

I don’t consider myself superstitious, but I felt uneasy flying with Malaysia Airlines. In my head, I knew it was safe. But by the time I was lining up to board, my chest was tight, my stomach knotted. I was dizzy, lightheaded, imagining the worst.

My taxi driver to the airport had launched into an explanation about how he always, always took the cheapest option when flying home to India. And how he could have saved $1000 if his family of five went Malaysia Airlines this summer. But his wife would not allow it, so they had instead opted for a mix of fares from budget carriers for their next trip home.

There has been speculation that the embattled airline could not survive the disasters.

One consultant says it was like vultures circling an injured animal, taking turns picking at its flesh.

“It really felt like people wanted Malaysia Airlines to fold,” she says.

But Malaysia Airlines hasn’t folded. It has grown. About 20 per cent more New Zealanders and Australians are flying with the airline now than 12 months ago. New routes and extra flights to Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne have increased the airline’s weekly capacity in the region by 9000 seats – about a third. Planes to and from New Zealand are more than 80 per cent full, and about 70 per cent full in Australia.

Malaysia Airline’s vice-president for New Zealand and Australia, P K Lee, says the New Zealand and Australia region came back “fast and strong” after the disasters and has been identified as a pivotal growth market.

“For MH370, it took us about one month before we came back to the level we were at before the incident. Then MH17 came and, naturally, the bookings came down. We took one week to recover.

“There are those who are a bit superstitious,” he concedes. “But I think Australians and New Zealanders are very resilient.”

The business recovery plan, made public by its board of directors this month, confirmed that Malaysia Airlines would be wholly bought by Malaysia’s government.

It set out a 12-point plan to return the business to profitability by 2017 and refloat on the stockmarket within five years.

Lee, who says he will be the first to buy shares, shuts down the suggestion that a rebrand could be on the cards and says the airline will continue as a full-service, premium carrier. “Other carriers in Europe and the Asia Pacific who have had similar tragedies have successfully maintained their brands,” he points out.

One example is Indonesian airline Garuda, which had a run of fatal crashes in the 1990s and 2000s but has returned to profitability. Similarly, it seems unlikely that Air New Zealand’s fatal Erebus crash in 1979 would dissuade today’s travellers.

Mohamed Ingris

MOHAMMED INGRIS: “Everyone knows that it wasn’t us. We know we did a good job.”

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When aviation disasters hit the news, it is easy to forget that airline travel is one of the safest modes of transportation. But former flight attendant Lim Lee Mei does not take any chances. She is always prepared.

When she flies, she wears flat shoes, pants and long sleeves – sensible clothes that will protect her skin from friction burns if she needs to go down the evacuation slide. She tries to avoid window seats (too many people between the exit) and fastens her seatbelt tight enough to be undone with the flick of a finger. She shows me that a belt done up loosely across the hips requires two hands and a bit of a wrestle to get off.

“After a crash landing, there might only be 90 seconds before the plane explodes,” she explains. “We might have 500 passengers on board, and we have to get everyone out safely.”

Mei, who flew with Malaysia Airlines for 16 years before deciding to stay on the ground with her young children, is now one of the company’s safety-training officers. “There’s no short cuts, no half measures. All the crew here are well trained. If they fail the practical, they do not get in.”

Mei lost a lot of friends this year. “They were in my class just before the accidents, I had just seen them.” She chokes up. “I can’t train them for dealing with a plane that’s been shot down.”

Malaysian people are fiercely proud of their small country but hugely preoccupied with the way the world views them. And just like Air New Zealand is a symbol of the Kiwi identity, Malaysia Airlines is inextricably linked to their national pride.

Crews reported being sneered at as they walked through airports around the world. Nearly 200 cabin crew resigned in the months after the tragedies, with many citing family pressure. But there is a sadness in every person I meet.

Mohammed Ingris started with Malaysia Airlines 23 years ago as an apprentice and is now one of its most senior mechanical engineers, licensed to work on A380, Boeing-737-800 and Boeing-747 aircraft. He is proud that other airlines, such as Qantas, come to his team for maintenance, and proud that other airlines poach his staff.

He is excited to show off the airline’s heavy maintenance hangar at Kuala Lumpur International Airport – the largest in the world, with 120,000 square metres of hangar space and 3 million man-hours on hand each year. As it often does in Malaysia, talk eventually turns to the disasters.

“We sometimes sit in the break room and talk about everything that happened,” Ingris says. “Everyone knows that it wasn’t us. We know we did a good job.”

Hopes of solving the mystery of MH370 are pinned on an underwater search, launched this month in a faraway patch of the Indian Ocean. Was the plane hijacked? Was there an onboard catastrophe? Was the pilot heroic…or suicidal?

At any rate, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, leading the search, is confident MH370’s final satellite log-in, known as a handshake, is consistent with where it would have run out of fuel.

Unfortunately, it was 10 days before search and rescue missions began in these rough and windswept waters. Despite the involvement of 26 nations, 16 ships, nine planes (including New Zealand Air Force Orions), three helicopters, an underwater drone and British nuclear submarine HMS Tireless, no evidence was found.

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Three ships are now systematically combing a 60,000 square kilometre area with underwater sonar equipment, which emits sound pulses to detect objects in the dark depths.

Plane engines do not run out at the same time, so it is likely MH370 spiralled from its great heights and shattered into pieces when it hit the sea.

Yet search teams remain confident. An American crew from SL Hydrospheric Solutions are working on Go Phoenix, one of ships searching for MH370. These men are the frontline of the search, operating the controls of the underwater equipment.

Jay Larsen, one of the company’s owners, lost his dad in a helicopter crash in 1998, when he was 21.

“It was also very mysterious circumstances and my family never got to find the truth. That’s why this search is personal to me. All of the guys here have lost loved ones, we’ve all experienced that and we really want to bring the people on MH370 home to their families.”

He and his business partners are on the ship working 12 hours on, 12 hours off, away from home for many months at a time. They each remortgaged their family homes to invest in the equipment.

“It’s very tricky work and we’ve been experiencing gale-force winds and anything up to six-metre seas, which is actually better than we had hoped,” says Larsen, who believes MH370 can be found. “If it’s there, we will find it.”

Back in Perth, Danica Weeks is grappling with the unimaginable idea that she may never truly know what happened to her husband.

Even if Larsen and his team find that needle in the haystack – the black box – it will reveal voice recordings of only the final two hours of the flight. Light may never be shed on the mysterious circumstances that led to the plane’s turnaround, seven hours before it connected with the satellite one final time.

P K Lee, who also leads Malaysia Airline’s victim support team in Australia, says the toughest part of his job was not having the answers.

“When you are facing someone who has a loved one inside that plane, and you don’t have an answer to give, that is the worst moment,” he says.

The industry is now taking steps to ensure MH370 is not repeated, with the introduction of real-time tracking of commercial aircraft. Malaysia Airlines wants to be first to trial it.

“[MH370] should not and must not be repeated. The whole industry owes this to the travelling public,” Lee says.

“Those who have perished . . . have contributed to humankind. Their losses will bring air travel to the next level of excellence in safety.

“Their sacrifice will change the whole scenario of aviation. We will remember them forever.”

 – Sunday Star Times

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