Sleepless over MH370

Work for Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) director-general Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman had been fairly routine until the wee hours of March 8, when a MAS airliner went missing with 239 people on board.

Until the MH370 incident, the biggest problems Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman ever had to deal with were planes skidding the runway.

A veteran with over 39 years experience in the aviation industry, the DCA director-general admits that the closest he got to major plane accidents worldwide was through press reports.

"We didn't have any big accidents (here)," he says.

"My experience was more local. Small aircraft, helicopter accidents and commercial aircraft incidents...Like the AirAsia flight veering off the Kuching runway in 2011. That kind of thing."

Though an accident investigator by training, Azharuddin says he didn't take charge of investigations, adding that they were often left to teams within the DCA.

When a Twin Otter crashed in Kudat killing two and injuring five people last year, he visited the site as an inspector but did not take over investigations.

In his seven years as DCA chief, Azharuddin's work was fairly routine, mostly managing local airspace and flight safety.

All that changed on March 8 when Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared off the east coast and later over the Indian Ocean. Azharuddin suddenly became one of the country's leading figures on the plane, and has had to face a world that desperately searched for answers.

"It (the incident) took everyone by surprise. It was perplexing...There was not much for us to work on except for data and information from Inmarsat," he recalls.

Sleepless nights were common, with Azharuddin, who says that he spent nearly every waking moment on finding MH370.

He was suddenly thrust into the world media glare as journalists from around the world grilled him over the missing plane.

The task of coordinating an international search-and-rescue coalition from within Malaysia also fell to him.

He would also find himself away from his family for two months, and would only get to see them again the month after that.

In those early days, Azharuddin says the authorities had to work with what little information they had and even then, not all of it was credible.

Communication with the global public, he shares, was another problem as there was scarce information for a global media hungry for answers.

He remembers being ridiculed by media agencies around the world over his reference to Italian footballer Mario Balotelli. In explaining the background of the two Iranian fake passport holders, he had used the reference to state that looks had nothing to do with nationalities.

"We discussed this before facing the media, 'Why not say something like Balotelli?' It was an easy reference, but was misconstrued. I just took it in my stride."

Though unused to the global attention and sudden heavy workload, Azharuddin says the crisis was not something he or his team couldn't handle.

"I wasn't accustomed to this, but it wasn't easy or difficult... It's something that, in a way, I'm expected to do. In aviation, you have to be prepared for the worst case scenario.

"You have to be prepared for this. If you're not, you cannot be focused or have a clear mind about what you're going to do. You need to have the right people," he says.

On criticisms that Malaysia fumbled in handling the crisis, he insists that the Government made the right choices.

"Yes, we lost the aircraft over the South China Sea, and the turn-back. But we have done our part in a very structured manner. Even if we do otherwise, people will criticise. That's to be expected."

Speaking on changes to the airline industry, Azharuddin says real-time satellite tracking of commercial aircraft could become a reality soon.

Azharuddin, however, says some airlines are against this as they are not keen to share their trade secrets.

"This is something they have to work out. It should meet everyone's expectations. However, safety should be the main criteria," he stresses.

Both the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and International Air Transport Association (IATA), he adds, are looking into extending a flight's black box transmitting battery life from 30 days to 90 days.

Changes to a plane's cockpit voice recorder, which currently only records the last two hours before being overwritten, may soon be configured to record an entire journey's worth.

There have also been some suggestions, he adds, where flight data and cockpit conversations could be recorded in real-time and downloaded remotely.

When it comes to tightening local procedures, however, Azharuddin says Malaysia already follows international protocols, hinting that there is no need for major change.

But, he says, there is a need to look into the transfer of aircraft from one Flight Information Region to another.

"That is something we need to re-look, and make it more seamless. We have to prepare for (when) some things go wrong." Though things may have quietened down in the search for MH370, Azharuddin says his work is far from over.

With his regular duties now handled by his officers, the DCA chief has had to spend much of his time jetting between Australia, China and Malaysia, juggling search efforts and speaking to officials.

He also spends much of his time at the Royale Chulan Hotel as well, which has now become the MH370 coordination centre for Malaysian authorities.

"I've been working on this every single day. Even on weekends. (But) my wife and family have given me very good support." Despite all that has happened, Azharuddin has no regrets over the handling of the crisis, adding that Malaysia would know how to deal with another major aircraft problem should it happen again.

"In every major accident, the first part is always difficult. Once you get through it, everything is in place. (It should be easier to deal with) if we're faced with another one, which I hope not!

"Now that we have this experience, we should be better prepared."