KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – It may mean little to investigators that the last words air traffic controllers heard from the lost jetliner were “Good night, Malaysian three-seven-zero,” rather than “All right, good night.” But to Malaysian officials whose credibility has been questioned almost from the beginning, it means a great deal.
Malaysian officials said more than two weeks ago that “All right, good night,” were the last words, and that the co-pilot uttered them. They changed the account late Monday and said they are still investigating who it was that spoke. The discrepancy added to the confusion and frustration families of the missing already felt more than three weeks after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, and as of Tuesday officials had not explained how they got it wrong.
“This sort of mistake hits at the heart of trust in their communications. If Malaysia is changing what the pilot said, people start thinking, ‘What are they going to change next?’ ” said Hamish McLean, an expert in risk and crisis communication at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.
“Information is in a crisis is absolutely critical. When we are dealing with such a small amount of information its needs to be handled very carefully,” he said.
Authorities have been forced on the defensive by the criticism, the most forceful of which has come from a group of Chinese relatives who accuse them of lying about – or even involvement in – the plane’s disappearance. In part responding to domestic political criticism, defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein has taken to retweeting supportive comments on Twitter. He has twice in recent days proclaimed that “history would judge us well” over the handling of the crisis.
The government’s opponents disagree. Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said the correction set off a “medley of shame, sadness and anger” and strengthened the case for creating an opposition-led parliamentary committee to investigate the government’s performance in the search.
The communications skills of any government or airline would have been severely tested by the search for the Boeing 777-200 and its 239 passengers and crew. So far not a scrap of debris has been found.
“There has been very little to tell and a lot of unanswered questions,” said Andrew Herdman, director-general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines. “There is frustration on the lack of new information, frustration over progress with investigations and the search. That frustration is being channeled to the Malaysian authorities but I think it’s a bit premature to use that to reflect adversely on how they are doing.”
Still, the government’s handling of information has at times fed perceptions that it was holding back. From the first day of the search, crews were looking far to the west of the plane’s last point of contact with air-traffic controllers, but it took about a week for officials to explain that radar had detected the plane in the area.
“There are some things that I can tell you and some things that I can’t,” Malaysia’s civil aviation chief said cryptically in the early days of the search.
“That was a terrible, terrible response,” said Lyall Mercer, the principal of Australian-based Mercer PR, a public relations company. “It says to the families that ‘we know things that we are not going to share’ and that ‘something else is more important than yo’.’ ”
The piece of information that families most want to hear – whether their relatives are alive or dead – has remained impossible to say with finality, creating a dilemma for the government.
On March 24, it tried to address that. Malaysia Airlines officials met families in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing and sent a text message to others saying “we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived.”
At a news conference half an hour later, Prime Minister Najib Razak was less direct. He said with “deep sadness and regret” that the plane’s last known position was “a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” and that the flight “ended” in the southern Indian Ocean.
Sarah Bacj, a 48-year-old American expatriate teacher whose boyfriend, Philip Wood, was on the flight, said the decision by Malaysia Airlines to inject some certainty into the fate of the passengers was a mistake. Until then, she said she thought the Malaysian government had acted responsibly, but the text message “totally violated my trust.”
“I fell off the cliff,” Bacj said. “The way the text message came, I expected proof. That they had found the bodies, or that they had found confirmed wreckage, or something ... but they didn’t actually tell us anything at all. The only thing they did was make a judgment statement about evidence – unconfirmed evidence, mind you.”
The final words from the cockpit, and who said them, are of interest not only because there are few other clues to the disappearance, but because the communication occurred just a minute before the plane’s transponders were shut off. The words were in English, as aviation communications are around the world.
PR experts and professionals said the important thing now is to try and give the families as much information as possible, before the media gets hold of it, and to keep paying attention to them even when the media gaze had drifted.
On Tuesday, the Malaysian government announced that technical experts from Malaysia, China and Australia would brief the families in a closed-door session in Kuala Lumpur.
Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.
Malaysian authorities on Tuesday released their full transcript of the audio communications between Flight 370’s cockpit and air traffic controllers before the plane disappeared March 8. The conversation, heavy with aviation shorthand, is in English with the one Indonesian comment meaning, “Good morning.”
The conversation, as it was released, between the cockpit and various units of air traffic control, Delivery, Ground, Tower, Approach and Radar, the time the audio was recorded, and what was spoken:
- Cockpit at 12:25:53: Delivery MAS 370 Good Morning
- Delivery at 12:26:02: MAS 370 Standby and Malaysia Six is cleared to Frankfurt via AGOSA Alpha Departure six thousand feet squawk two one zero six
- Delivery at 12:26:19: ... MAS 370 request level
- Cockpit at 12:26:21: MAS 370 we are ready requesting flight level three five zero to Beijing
- Delivery at 12:26:39: MAS 370 is cleared to Beijing via PIBOS A Departure Six Thousand Feet squawk two one five seven
- Cockpit at 12:26:45: Beijing PIBOS A Six Thousand Squawk two one five seven MAS 370 Thank You
- Delivery at 12:26:53: MAS 370 Welcome over to ground
- Cockpit at 12:26:55: Good Day
- Cockpit at 12:27:27: Ground MAS370 Good morning Charlie One Requesting push and start
- Ground at 12:27:34: MAS370 Lumpur Ground Morning Push back and start approved Runway 32 Right Exit via Sierra 4
- Cockpit at 12:27:40: Push back and start approved 32 Right Exit via Sierra 4 POB 239 Mike Romeo Oscar
- Ground at 12:27:45: Copied
- Cockpit at 12:32:13: MAS377 request taxi.
- Ground at 12:32:26: MAS37..... (garbled) ... standard route. Hold short Bravo
- Ground at 12:32:30: Ground, MAS370. You are unreadable. Say again.
- Ground at 12:32:38: MAS370 taxi to holding point Alfa 11 Runway 32 Right via standard route. Hold short of Bravo.
- Cockpit at 12:32:42: Alfa 11 Standard route Hold short Bravo MAS370.
- Ground at 12:35:53: MAS 370 Tower
- Ground at 12:36:19: (garbled) ... Tower ... (garbled)
- Cockpit (no time given): 1188 MAS370 Thank you
- Cockpit at 12:36:30: Tower MAS370 Morning
- Tower at 12:36:38: MAS370 good morning. Lumpur Tower. Holding point.. (garbled)..10 32 Right
- Cockpit at 12:36:50: Alfa 10 MAS370
- Tower at 12:38:43: 370 line up 32 Right Alfa 10.
- Cockpit (no time given): Line up 32 Right Alfa 10 MAS370.
- Tower at 12:40:38: 370 32 Right Cleared for take-off. Good night.
- Cockpit (no time given): 32 Right Cleared for take-off MAS370. Thank you Bye.
- Cockpit at 12:42:05: Departure Malaysian Three Seven Zero
- Approach at 12:42:10: Malaysian Three Seven Zero selamat pagi identified. Climb flight level one eight zero cancel SID turn right direct to IGARI
- Cockpit at 12:42:48: Okay level one eight zero direct IGARI Malaysian one err Three Seven Zero
- Approach at 12:42:52: Malaysian Three Seven Zero contact Lumpur Radar One Three Two Six good night
- Cockpit (no time given): Night One Three Two Six Malaysian Three Seven Zero
- Cockpit at 12:46:51: Lumpur Control Malaysian Three Seven Zero
- Radar at 12:46:51: Malaysian Three Seven Zero Lumpur radar Good Morning climb flight level two five zero
- Cockpit at 12:46:54: Morning level two five zero Malaysian Three Seven Zero
- Radar at 12:50:06: Malaysian Three Seven Zero climb flight level three five zero
- Cockpit at 12:50:09: Flight level three five zero Malaysian Three Seven Zero
- Cockpit at 01:01:14: Malaysian Three Seven Zero maintaining level three five zero
- Radar at 01:01:19: Malaysian Three Seven Zero
- Cockpit at 01:07:55: Malaysian...Three Seven Zero maintaining level three five zero
- Radar at 01:08:00 Malaysian Three Seven Zero
- Radar at 01:19:24: Malaysian Three Seven Zero contact Ho Chi Minh 120 decimal 9 Good Night
- Cockpit at 01:19:29: Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero