AirAsia flight QZ8501: A dismal year for Malaysian aviation

A man walking near the AirAsia check-in counter inside terminal 1 at Changi airport in Singapore on Dec 28, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A man walking near the AirAsia check-in counter inside terminal 1 at Changi airport in Singapore on Dec 28, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - The disappearance of AirAsia Indonesia'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.

On Sunday, the nation, still reeling from the trauma of losing the two Boeing 777 planes and the 537 souls onboard, was hit by news that an Airbus belonging to the joint-venture airline - 49 per cent owned by Malaysia-based low-cost giant AirAsia - blipped off Jakarta's air traffic radar at 7.24 am (Singapore time). The plane was midway through its flight to Singapore from Surabaya.

Although Indonesia Airasia is a separate entity from the corporate group that runs Asia's largest budget carrier, the brand is synonymous with Malaysia, whose people are unused to major air tragedies. But 2014 was like no year before.

On March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, had vanished without a trace. It was carrying 239 - mostly Chinese nationals. Nearly 10 months on, investigators have yet to make meaningful progress towards locating it.

The Boeing 777 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 MH370 search continued to frustrate, MAS was hit by news on July 17 that another of its Boeing 777s was shot down over Ukrainian airspace, killing all 298 on board, including 43 Malaysians.

Russia, and Ukraine - which is struggling to contain pro-Moscow separatists operating in the crash area - accuse each other of shooting down the plane, which was flying home 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$1.89 billion) over the past three years.

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

Prior to the twin losses, Malaysian aviation had a good safety record. The last serious accident took place in September 1995 when the pilot of a rural service MAS flight misjudged a landing at Tawau Airport, Sabah, killing 34 of the 49 on board the Fokker airplane.

shannont@sph.com.sg