Dealing with the MH370 crisis: The three key figures

A prominent politician who is no stranger to the media glare. An unknown civil servant thrust into the spotlight. And a head honcho tasked with turning around an ailing airline. We look at the key figures dealing with the fallout from the Malaysia Airlines incident.

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, Acting Transport Minister/Defence Minister

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, 52, has emerged as the Malaysian government's spokesman in the MH370 crisis, in both his capacity as Acting Transport Minister and Defence Minister.

This is the biggest crisis he has handled, after the insurgency in Sabah last year where Filipino gunmen landed on Sabah's shores to reclaim the state for the defunct Sulu Sultanate. That ended with a military onslaught.

A trained lawyer and a seasoned politician, Mr Hishammuddin has been steadily climbing the ranks of the ruling Umno party from chief of the youth wing to his current vice-president's post.

He was elected as the Umno vice-president in the polls in October, 2013, albeit with the lowest votes of the three elected to this post.

Mr Hishammuddin is also the son of former Prime Minister Hussein Onn and a first cousin of current Prime Minister Najib Razak.He previously held the Cabinet posts for Education and Home.

As the government spokesman for the airline crisis, Mr Hishammuddin initially took a lot of flak for chaotic communication around the missing plane. The public was even more outraged by his curt denial that there was confusion.

“It's confusion if you want it to be seen as confusion,” he said on Wednesday at a press conference.

This earned him a deluge of brickbats. But a day later, he was more polished at a press conference before 300 journalists from around the world.

It's not certain yet how his handling of this crisis will affect his political career. If it ends well, he may bask in the glory. But a poor performance will not necessarily damage his career. A Malaysian politician's fortunes often hinges on his political support in the party, and that is not necessarily linked to his performance in a governmental role.

Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Director General, Department of Civil Aviation (DCA)

Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's chief civil aviation regulator is one of the many unseen civil servants who ran a low-profile agency, until the unexpected disappearance of the aircraft thrust him into the limelight.

The 56-year-old engineer from Temerloh in Pahang has headed the DCA since 2008. Few had heard of him until last Saturday when he made an appearance at the first press conference called to inform the press about the lost aircraft.

He has since attended most of the press conferences, often taking the lead in answering media questions on the more technical areas.

Under pressure and with little information readily forthcoming, he made one notable stumble when he referred to Italian football star Mario Balotelli in explaining why a non-Caucasian had cleared Malaysia's immigration using a European passport with a Caucasian name.

"Do you know a footballer by the name of Bartoli (sic)? He's an Italian. Do you know what he looks like? Balotelli," he told reporters on Monday.

He was forced to clarify later that he had used Mr Balotelli as an example to point out that race and nationality are two different things. Mr Balotelli was born in Italy to Ghanaian parents.

Despite his stumbles in the public, Mr Azharuddin is known to be an authority in his field of airport and aircraft management, and has been patient in explaining technicalities to the press.

Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, Malaysian Airline System CEO 

Less than three years ago, Malaysian Airline System Bhd (MAS) chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, 59, came on board with a tough mission - turn the ailing airline around to profitability.

His mission just got exponentially tougher.

In the past two years, the airline lost money in almost every quarter. For 2013, it posted RM1.17 billion (S$451 million) in losses, hit by rising fuel costs and falling revenue.

It has strugged to compete with lower-cost rivals including Airasia, which has grown to become the largest low-cost carrier in the region in just 13 years of operations.

The problem, analysts said, is that MAS - a state-owned airline - has lower productivity compared to its regional peers and a bloated staff count that forms a bulk of its expenses.

Mr Ahmad brings with him more than 20 years of experience in top managerial roles in various industries, including stints at oil and gas company ESSO Malaysia Bhd, now part of Exxon Mobil Corp. He was managing director of Malakoff Bhd, a power-generation conglomerate, before he left in 2010 to lead a private biofuel producer.

He is no stranger to gruelling tasks, having entered four Ironman triathlon competition - that require him to swim, bike and run non-stop for 17 hours- since 2003.

Now he is dealing with the full-blown crisis of a missing airplane with 239 people on board.

Analysts said apart from facing reputation risks, the missing jet is almost certain to derail Mr Ahmad’s strategy of turning MAS around this year.

The immediate focus is on finding the plane and assisting families of the passengers and crew- all of which are costly exercises with no end in sight.