A year of tragedy for Malaysian aviation

Emergency numbers posted at an AirAsia counter at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport on 28 December 2014. The Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 went missing about an hour after it left Surabaya for Singapore with 155 passengers and seven crew members on board.

The disappearance of Indonesia AirAsia's QZ8501 in the final days of 2014 caps a horrific year for Malaysian aviation, coming after the earlier loss of two Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Boeing jumbo jets.

Yesterday, the nation, still reeling from the trauma of losing the two Boeing 777 planes and the 537 people on board, was hit anew by news that an Airbus belonging to the joint-venture airline blipped off Jakarta's air traffic radar at 6.17am Surabaya time (7.17am Singapore time). The plane was midway through its flight to Singapore from Surabaya.

Although Indonesia AirAsia is a separate entity from AirAsia, which has a 49 per cent stake in it, the brand is synonymous with Malaysia, whose people are unused to major air tragedies.

But 2014 was like no year before.

On March 8, MAS Flight MH370, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, vanished without a trace. It was carrying 239 people, mostly Chinese nationals. Nearly 10 months on, investigators have yet to make meaningful progress towards locating it.

The jet is believed to have gone down in the southern Indian Ocean off Australia's west coast. However, despite numerous sweeps of the location, no debris has been found, leaving grieving next-of-kin without closure.

The disappearance of MH370 shocked many and left nerves raw over accusations, especially from China, that Malaysia was hiding information and had mishandled the crisis.

AirAsia was forced to apologise at the time following public uproar over an article in its in-flight magazine - appearing less than a month after MH370 vanished - that cheekily said: "Rest assured that your captain is well prepared to ensure your plane will never get lost. Have a safe flight."

While the search for MH370 continued to frustrate, MAS lost a second Boeing 777 when Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukrainian airspace on July 17, killing all 298 on board, including 43 Malaysians.

Russia and Ukraine, struggling to contain pro-Moscow separatists operating in the crash area, accused each other of taking down the plane flying home to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam.

The twin incidents broke the back of the ailing flag carrier.

State sovereign wealth fund Khazanah decided to take the carrier private following losses of more than RM5 billion (S$1.9 billion) over the past three years.

Shareholders agreed early last month to Khazanah's turnaround plan for MAS, which would see 30 per cent of staff losing their jobs.

But Malaysia, where society has been increasingly polarised due to political and ethnic strife, has shown unity throughout these tragedies, and support for AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes has galvanised him as he faces what he calls his "worst nightmare".

"I am touched by the massive show of support, especially from my fellow airlines. This is my worse (sic) nightmare. But there is no stopping," he said on Twitter.

Prior to the twin losses, Malaysian aviation had a good safety record.

The last serious accident was in September 1995 when the pilot of a rural-service MAS flight misjudged a landing at Tawau Airport, Sabah, killing 34 of the 49 people on board the Fokker airplane.

This article was first published on December 29, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.