Practicing tragedy.

AFP PHOTO / MOHD FYROL

QZ8501 and Malaysia's Year of Flying Dangerously

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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When the Indonesian authorities called off Sunday’s search for AirAsia Flight QZ8501, lost flying between Surabaya, Indonesia and Singapore, Malaysians could have been forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu. After all, it was only nine months earlier, on March 8, that they received word that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had gone missing, setting off months of on-again, off-again searches that -- so far -- have turned up nothing. At least briefly, QZ8501, flown on an Indonesian subsidiary of Kuala Lumpur-based AirAsia, felt like more of the same.

There are, of course, notable, differences. QZ8501 has only been missing less than 24 hours and, unlike Flight 370, there’s actually an immediate, reasonable theory about what might have happened to it (bad weather). But the fact that there’s less mystery surrounding QZ8501 isn’t much solace. 

In fact, many Malaysians are now trying to reckon with the fact that Malaysian-owned carriers will have been involved in the three worst air tragedies of the past year, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down over the Ukraine. That’s an unlikely status for any country, much less Malaysia, population 30 million, and hardly a global aviation power.

It’s tempting to look for a common thread to explain this inexplicable string of bad aviation luck. But prior to March 2014, Malaysia’s two major carriers had exemplary safety records, and there was absolutely nothing about them to lead an outside observer to believe that they’d lose three jets in nine months.

Indeed, if there’s a single thread that runs from MH370 to QZ8501, it’s the public relations efforts in the face of disaster. Even that aspect hasn't been entirely consistent. Malaysian authorities certainly didn't wish for the practice, but they've clearly become better and more transparent when responding to tragedy since the evasive, and sometimes incompetent, response to MH370. 

But better PR hasn’t been able to change the central fact of the Malaysia Air tragedies -- that all the disasters have been shrouded in mystery. True, the wreckage of MH17 was found quickly, but despite widespread suspicion that Russian-supported rebels were responsible for shooting it down, so far there’s been no official statement from accident investigators to support the claim. It doesn't help that Malaysia has largely been at the mercy of others to solve these aviation mysteries. The search for MH370 has been led by Australians, among others; the investigation of MH17 is being led by Europeans.

That sort of dependence wasn't the best foundation for a confident response to the latest tragedy. The dominant emotion on Malaysian social media in the hours following Sunday morning’s first news of QZ8501’s disappearance was despair. Of the many responses perhaps none was more poignant than the one tweeted by Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia’s fierce competitor. “#staystrong @AirAsia - Our thoughts and prayers are with all family and friends of those on board QZ8501.”

(Corrects spelling of Surabaya in first paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net