Friday, 14 March 2014

Malaysia Airlines and government learning Disaster Management on the fly

Generic example of Air Traffic Control Radar Scope tracking airliners

Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-370 vanishes. It is a regularly operated flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. The airline's management is now stuck in an impossible situation with few options. It does not know the status or reasons why the B-777 disaster has occurred. Only that it has. What is the best approach in handling this crisis and disaster?

The airline industry is a complex organization, operated and managed by advanced technology. It has undergone incredible technical and process transformation since the first commercial flights in the 1930's. Airline management knows about danger and risks. Aircraft are complex machines that consumers simply consider as one more mode of transportation available to get from A to B. It is a competitive and high cost conscious industry, operated in multiple methods to organize and deliver transportation services to the travelling public. It has to adhere to strict and bureaucratic rules and regulations thousands of pages long. Maintenance engineering has become a sophisticated, demanding a highly skilled workforce either internally or sub-contracted. Flight schedule management is highly scrutinized and  is now automated down to the last bit of efficiency, from fuel management to cargo loads measured to the exact weight the aircraft is configured. Not all airlines follow the same precise level of detail, but the majority of them do. Aviation safety is not only mandatory, but recognized by airline executives as priority #1. In some countries, the airlines technology is more advanced than the regulators that monitor them. A Boeing B-777 is worth 250 million dollars each with millions more invested in infrastructure to support it. They are not managed like your local bus running across town.

When one of your airliners, one of the most advanced aircraft in the world, a Boeing wide body B-777 goes missing, it demands a whole new set of skills and management experience to work through the crisis now facing the company. But there are limitations and risks if not prepared properly and as is often the case during these types of events, common sense is the primary tool that should be used. So far, the airline has done exactly that. There is always a sense you are not doing enough. When you do not know what has happened, disclose this to those that will be supporting your efforts in finding out what has occurred followed by the exact same procedure with affected customers. There are significant public and internal pressures to resolve what has occurred. Compounding Malaysian Airline's problems is the reliance on other organizations to support the airline through this event. In this case, the Malaysian governments public safety agencies and the military, all of whom are not accountable or in direct support to the airline. It is a difficult situation to find oneself in. We have documented many of these challenges in our Crisis and Disaster Management Magazine.

The news media has made this situation worse, publishing unconfirmed reports and rumors from unidentified sources. Foreign government announcements are fueling speculation of what has happened and demanding answers - now. Meanwhile, Malaysian Airlines is put into the position and perception that it is helpless and incompetent. It cannot criticize public safety officials and nor can it intervene in what other governments are demanding, particularly if they do not know anymore than the guy on the street corner does. The airline has fully cooperated with aviation authorities and government investigators with any and all information they want. It does not know what has transpired and continues to state this position, yet news media and others hammer away at the company. Boeing, the manufacturer of the B-777 has held steadfast in its silence since the disaster occurred. This has been their policy for decades. Why is Malaysian Airlines being held to a different set of standards? Crisis management is often about doing less than trying to do something just for the sake of perception. In my opinion, it has done a remarkable job considering how many vultures are circling overhead. Remain calm.

Malaysian Airlines has not been silent, but it has been cautious in its approach. 

Malaysia is a growing and modern country spanning across two geographically separated regions bordering three major ocean basins covering 329,000 square kilometers. Its government is based on the British Westminster Constitutional system with a population of just over 28 million. It's modernization since the end of World War II and independence from the United Kingdom has been breath taking since 1957. Its institutions are expanding and gaining experience with capabilities that are in an era of learning and rapid growth. It's Royal Malaysian Air Force and Navy is still young with very little experience in disaster response roles and responsibilities. The military leadership is complicated by historical sovereignty challenges and requirements. Its coastal defense and naval coastguard are small in size and capabilities relative to other surrounding nations. It has not faced a major disaster like this since independence 57 years ago. The government is learning on the job like Malaysian Airlines what crisis and disaster management is.

Everyone knows something, or thinks they do. The instinct to tell people what you know is often impulsive regardless of the quality of the information The government is going through damage control dealing with this crisis on multiple levels as leaks or misunderstandings wreck havoc in and outside of their domain, as inaccurate information flies across the internet and news outlets. Significant resources are being wasted during this phase of operations. The Malaysian Government has wisely asked for international assistance, bringing with it, a new set of management challenges while still attempting to maintain control of the situation. It is proving to be a daunting undertaking for senior government officials the military and its national airline.

It is likely, the investigation will take up to two years, perhaps longer before flight MH-370 is solved. There can be little doubt that the B-777 will be eventually found. The resources and technology used will follow the same pattern and procedures as those used to investigate Air France Flight AF-447 over the Atlantic ocean in 2011. In the meantime, Malaysia's airline and government is learning the perils and obstacles when faced with an international incident that has worldwide attention. This crisis will pass. Lessons will be learned and enable all the stakeholders to fly high into the future.

1 comment:

  1. Finally! Some balance from someone who knows what he is talking about. Thanks Doug.

    The Media have been out of control over this incident, further losing any residual credibility they may have had. It's so depressing. Even organs such as the BBC have been guilty of speculation rather than reporting. They have forgotten the importance of evidence-based reposrting.