Fury as relatives wait for news of plane

March 09, 2014 - 1:14:19 am

Malaysia Airlines’ senior official Dr Hugh Dunleavy (left) and a member of the airline’s crisis management team, Ignatius Ong, face the Chinese media after arriving in China to deal with the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 plane, in Beijing, yesterday.

BEIJING: Tearful and angry, the friends and relatives of passengers on board missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 lashed out at the company yesterday as journalists besieged them in a Beijing hotel.

Many were taken there by the airline after going to the Chinese capital’s airport to meet the flight, scheduled to land at around 6:30am.

A press conference was expected at the same location, and when others arrived later, they had to run the gauntlet of scores of Chinese and international reporters shoving microphones and cameras in their faces.

“They should have told us something before now,” said one visibly distressed man in his 30s, from the Chinese city of Tianjin.

A man in his 20s struggled to help a grieving older woman, possibly his mother, into a quiet room as journalists shouted questions at her.

“They are useless,” he said of the airline. “I don’t know why they haven’t released any information. We waited for four hours and all they told us was the very few details they released at the media conference.”

At the press conference, a Malaysia Airlines staffer read out a statement that had already been given in Kuala Lumpur —and which the passengers had read online — in chaotic scenes as scores of cameramen fought and barged each other out the way to get clear shot.

Fighting back tears, a 20-year-old woman who had gone to the airport to meet a college friend said the passenger’s family still had not been told by the airline she was on board.

According to Malaysia Airlines, 153 of the 239 people on board the missing flight — a codeshare with China Southern Airlines — are Chinese citizens.

Scores of family members spoke to airline officials in small groups in a room on the hotel’s second floor.

Security at times struggled to hold back the huge throng of reporters crowding outside the door and making it difficult for relatives to enter or exit.

Hundreds of journalists from across China are currently in Beijing for the annual session of the National People’s Congress, the Communist-controlled parliament, and many of those present wore badges from the event. 

One woman in her twenties entered the room frantically crying, ignoring questions from the horde.

A man in his 60s wiped tears from his eyes with a handkerchief as he entered the room. He hit a cameraman in the face who tried to film him as he walked by, as a security guard shouted “Don’t you all have families?”

In the evening a group of about 10 family members made their way into the room to meet airline officials, sobbing into their hands.

At the airport, for hours after the flight should have landed, the digital arrivals board described it, in red, as “delayed”. Then it changed, to “cancelled”.

Malaysia Airlines has long been a respected name in regional aviation, enjoying an enviable safety record.

The incident will be a major blow to the airline, which has struggled to remain profitable recently against a host of nimble competitors, particularly the rise of budget airlines.

Malaysian Airlines flies about 37,000 passengers daily to 80 destinations across Asia, and to Europe and the United States. It operates more than 250 flights a day.

The carrier has suffered few incidents in its history and has a solid safety record.

Its worst accident came in 1977, when a hijacking and subsequent crash in southern Malaysia killed 93 passengers and seven crew. 

The airline has a fleet of 88 aircraft including Boeing 747-400s, Boeing 777-200s and Airbus A380-800s.

The plane that disappeared Saturday somewhere over the South China Sea — believed near Vietnam airspace — was a Boeing 777-200, considered one of the safest planes in the industry.

First formed in 1947 as Malayan Airways, the airline went through a series of organisational changes culminating in its 1972 re-launch under its current name.

The flag carrier’s steady expansion gained pace in the 1980s, benefiting from the Malaysian economy’s rapid export-led growth. Its fleet and route system grew rapidly.

But the Asian financial crisis that rocked the region in 1997 pushed the airline into the red, forcing it to undertake a series of steps including cutting unprofitable routes and reducing costs.

The company subsequently see-sawed between profit and loss, with its balance sheet looking increasingly shaky.

It has bled red ink in recent years as its struggles to fend off competition from rivals such as fast-growing Malaysia-based budget airline AirAsia.

“This incident comes at a most unfortunate time for the airline which is undergoing a transformation to return to profit,” said Shukor Yusof, aviation analyst with Standard & Poor’s Equity Research in Singapore. “It will further aggravate its road to profitability.”

Malaysia Airlines has drawn derision from some observers and analysts with its announcement of a series of “recovery” plans aimed at steering it back into the black over the years.

None has succeeded, and critics have accused the government of keeping the state-linked airline afloat with cash injections of taxpayers’ money rather than launching painful and necessary reforms.

Analysts also blame poor management, government interference, a bloated workforce, and powerful, change-resistant unions for preventing the airline from remaining competitive.

In 2011, it chalked up a record 2.5bn ringgit ($767m) loss, due in part to rising fuel costs. Its managers admitted in 2012 the airline was in “crisis”, implementing yet another cost-cutting campaign.

Agencies

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