Malaysia Plane Crash: Questions Over Route and Setback for Malaysian Airlines

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — As this heavily Muslim nation in Southeast Asia mourned on a holy Ramadan Friday the sudden loss of a second Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 and its passengers and crew, people here and around the world were left to wonder why the plane was flying over a conflict in eastern Ukraine where increasingly powerful surface-to-air missiles were being used.

Officials in the United States confirmed late Thursday that Flight 17, with 298 people aboard, had been shot down over Grabovo, Ukraine, by what they described as a Russian-made antiaircraft missile. Fighting in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists has been marked by the successful use of missiles against aircraft at higher and higher altitudes, although the downing on Thursday of Flight 17, struck at 33,000 feet, was the first at cruising altitude for modern commercial jets.

In a statement delivered before dawn here, Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia pointedly noted that the International Civil Aviation Organization had declared the airspace safe and that the International Air Transport Association had not restricted travel there. “We must — and we will — find out precisely what happened to this flight,” he said.

The crash remained the subject of intense conversation and debate through Thursday night in the small Ukrainian town of Grabovo, as people tried to come to grips with what had unfolded in the fields where they work, just yards from their homes.

As a cloudy dawn came, the full horror of the field was on full display. Small white pieces of cloth dotted the grassy farmland, marking the spots of bodies.

Four local rebels in fatigues were wandering through the ruins, looking through people’s belongings, riffling through tour guidebooks and people’s bags curiously.

When asked who was responsible, they looked incredulous, and said that it was of course the Ukrainian military.

“This wasn’t ours,” said one who identified himself only as Alexei, standing looking at an overhead bin in the grass with a rifle over his shoulder. “Why would we do this? We’re not animals.”

The smell of flesh hung heavily near a broken hulk of metal on the road where a body lay splayed. A foot with part of a leg was lying on the road.

The plane appeared to have broken apart at a great height as pieces were scattered across several miles of agricultural fields. The two wings lay akimbo, as if pushed forward on impact. The plane was full of fuel when it crashed and the fire near the engine was fierce, turning the twisted metal remains into molten pools that had hardened by morning.

A small girl, probably no older than 3, dressed in a red shirt with ants on her legs had her eyes open. A woman with red hair splaying out on the green grass was lying with her face frozen in a pose that looked like she was about to speak.[eap_ad_2]

By 6:45, the field was still empty of rescue workers, though throngs of men from local rescue units, many wearing uniforms that bore insignia for “Ministry of Emergencies of Ukraine,” were gathering near trucks along the road. One man was taking roll call.

“This is direct provocation of the E.U. and the U.S.,” said a rebel, Alexander Nikolaevich, who was walking along the road near the scene. “You see our weapons,” he said pointing to his aging gun. “We started to win the war and the fascists did this to stop us.”

When asked if the fight would continue, he said, “a little bit.”

European and Ukrainian air traffic controllers had continued to route civil flights over the contested area even as the fighting worsened — and even as flights directed by Russian air traffic controllers had apparently started to avoid it.

While international experts put the blame on whoever fired the missile, questions about why commercial air traffic was continuing in the area — and about when air traffic should be stopped over similar areas of fighting in the future — could prove difficult to answer. The investigation into the loss of Flight 17 is laden with potential disputes over sovereignty.

Mark A. Dombroff, a partner focusing on the aviation industry at McKenna Long & Aldridge, a national law firm in the United States, said that legal precedents indicated that if a plane is downed by military action, the lead country in the investigation is the one over whose territory the plane was shot down. That appears to be Ukraine in this case — but the rebels in eastern Ukraine, where the plane crashed, do not recognize the leadership in Kiev and may try to claim the lead role in the investigation.

“One of the most complicated factors is getting investigators on the ground in hostile territory,” Mr. Dombroff said.

Ukraine or the rebels — or both — could decide to transfer leadership of the crash investigation either to the country of registry of the aircraft, which would be Malaysia, or to the country of manufacture for the aircraft, which would be the United States, where the Boeing 777 was made.

Leading a crash investigation is in some ways a formality for developing countries, as most of the world’s investigators with crash experience tend to come from countries that manufacture aircraft and certify their airworthiness. Russia’s proximity to the crash site, close ties to the rebels and extensive aviation experience means that it could try to play a sizable advisory role, particularly if the rebels follow through on reported plans to locate the flight data recorders and send them to Moscow.

The crash is another setback for Malaysia Airlines, which has already been struggling to recover from the loss of Flight 370, which vanished on March 8 during a red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The enduring mystery over Flight 370 has already severely hurt demand for Malaysia Airlines tickets, forcing the airline to offer budget carrier prices even though it bears the costs of a full-service airline.

The financial penalty on Malaysia Airlines was clear on Friday morning when two planes, one from Cathay Pacific and one from Malaysia Airlines, left Hong Kong International Airport five minutes apart, both bound for Kuala Lumpur. The Cathay Pacific was sold out in every class of service, and was so overbooked that the airline took the unusual step of calling at least one passenger at home the night before the flight and telling him that he had been involuntarily bounced to the flight operated by Malaysia Airlines, for which Cathay Pacific has a shared marketing code.

By contrast, the Malaysia Airlines flight was at least one-third empty. The bulk of the passengers appeared to have come from two separate companies that were holding meetings in Kuala Lumpur and had bought blocks of tickets for their employees to get there at discounted prices.

Civilian jetliners have been shot down on a few previous occasions, although the best-known examples involve the use of military fighter aircraft, not surface-to-air missiles.

The Russian Air Force downed a Korean Airlines flight in 1983 that was traveling from New York City to Seoul by way of Anchorage, after the plane wandered off course.

Chinese fighters shot down a Cathay Pacific airliner in 1954 off the coast of Hainan Island, southern China, in an incident that had its roots in a civil war. China’s explanation at the time was that it had feared the Cathay Pacific plane might actually be a military aircraft belonging to the Nationalists on Taiwan, who had lost the civil war in mainland China but remained technically at war.

Keith Bradsher reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Sabrina Tavernise reported from Grabovo, Ukraine. Christopher Buckley contributed reporting from Kuala Lumpur. (NY Times)[eap_ad_3]