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Third Malaysia-linked aviation accident likely a coincidence: experts

Dec. 30, 2014, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - The three worst commercial airline tragedies of 2014 have all involved aircraft with ties to Malaysia, but experts say this may be no more than coincidence.


December 30, 2014
By The Globe and Mail

AirAsia Flight 8501 left Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, Indonesia, at 5:35 a.m. local time on Sunday, en route to Singapore. The plane lost contact with air-traffic control less than two hours later, according to the Malaysia-based airline.

This follows two disasters involving Malaysian jets earlier in the year. In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a Boeing 777 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared with 239 people on board. No wreckage has been found yet. On July 17, another Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, Flight MH17, was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

While early signs point to extreme weather as a factor behind the disappearance of AirAsia Flight 8501, it is still unclear what caused Flight MH370 to go missing. Edward McKeogh, of Canadian Aviation Safety Consultants, said the two missing planes cannot be linked because there is still a lot of uncertainty over Flight MH370.

“The [first] one that they’re still looking for, who knows what happened there? Only when those black boxes, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, are recovered, if and when they recover the airplane… will we know really what happened there,” he said.

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“Weather was not a factor. They didn’t turn because they had thunderstorms in front of them.”

Mr. McKeogh said it makes more sense to link the weekend’s AirAsia plane’s fate to the disappearance of Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

“En-route weather was the problem,” said Mr. McKeogh. “Airlines, dispatchers, cockpit crews, pilots are going to have to integrate en-route weather more into their flight planning.”

Aviation safety expert Arnold Barnett pointed out that the law of averages supports Mr. McKeogh’s point of view. For long periods, an airline might experience no high-scale incidents, while shorter periods of time might be overrepresented, said the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

“If you look at the 21st century, from 2000 to 2013, the first 14 years, there were no fatal crashes involving Malaysia on any of its airlines,” he said. “Are we really going to believe that a set of airlines that for 13 years can fly without a single fatality have forgotten how to fly? In that sense, I think you do have an element of coincidence.”

However, Mr. Barnett cautioned that while AirAsia had a strong track record up until this incident, many other countries have done better to reduce risks.

“Statistically, the risk of flying does vary around the world,” he said. “The industrial democracies – the U.S. and Canada, most of the countries of Western Europe, places like Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Japan – these countries typically have a death risk per flight on the order of one in 25 million. The airlines of countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, over the long run, have death risks of something like 10 times that.”