Airline's lack of information angers relatives

March 10, 2014 - 9:34 PM
China Handling Disaster

Chinese relatives of passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane wait inside a hotel room in Beijing Monday, March 10, 2014. The anguished hours had turned into a day and a half. Fed up with awaiting word on the missing plane, relatives of passengers in Beijing lashed out at the carrier with a handwritten ultimatum and an impromptu news conference. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

BEIJING (AP) — The anguished hours had turned into a day and a half. Fed up with awaiting word on the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, relatives of passengers in Beijing lashed out at the carrier with a handwritten ultimatum and an impromptu news conference.

Faced with an emergency, the airline said it was doing all it could to answer questions about Flight MH370, which disappeared from radar Saturday with 239 people aboard while heading from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The uncertainty over the plane's whereabouts was frustrating relatives, but also hindering the carrier's ability to respond: It's difficult to deliver a clear message with so much still unclear.

From a room set aside at a hotel near the Beijing airport, a man with a black shirt emerged with a statement signed by about 100 of the relatives, saying that unless the carrier could give them some clarity, they would take their complaints to the Malaysian Embassy.

"We don't believe Malaysia Airlines anymore. Sorry everyone, we just don't believe them anymore," the man, who refused to give his name, told a crowd of reporters Sunday.

By this time, the airline already had dispatched dozens of caregivers to Beijing and assigned one to each family, provided accommodation, food, transport and financial assistance. It said it was providing regular updates despite a lack of information about the plane.

But the initial disorder of Malaysia Airlines' response, and its lack of official contact with relatives in the early going set the tone for the ensuing hours of waiting.

"One of the most important things to remember here," said Frank Taylor, a former director of an aviation safety center at Cranfield University in Britain, "is that it's much easier to stand down staff after an initial over-reaction than to play catch-up after an initial under-reaction."

The relatives had expected the plane's arrival at 6:30 a.m. Saturday. About four hours later, a handwritten note was posted on a white board in the arrival hall advising relatives to use a shuttle service to go to the Lido Hotel to await information. "It can't be good," said one weeping woman aboard the first bus.

But when the family members got there, they wandered around lost and distressed before hotel staff — apparently unprepared — escorted them into a private area. It was several more hours before an airline spokesman made a brief statement to reporters, providing little information.

"We're literally trying to find out what happened and until you actually find the aircraft you have no way of knowing what actually went on there," the airline's commercial director, Hugh Dunleavy, told The Associated Press on Sunday. "Our main focus has been to come here, meet the families, give them as much information as we can but without raising false hopes."

Still, passengers' relatives gathered in Beijing complained that the airline hasn't been forthcoming with information. Instead of hearing from the carrier, they said, they've had to rely on news reports for updates on the search.

The initial lack of word led to criticism that the airline did nothing in the six hours after the Boeing 777 jet vanished at 1:20 a.m. while cruising at 36,000 feet. But Dunleavy said the airline had immediately notified all planes in the nearby airspace to be on the lookout. They contacted air traffic control authorities in Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. They notified Malaysia's Civil Aviation Department and Transport Ministry.

The airline made no public announcement before the plane's scheduled 6:30 a.m. landing because it would have had enough fuel to continue in the air, Dunleavy said.

About an hour after the expected arrival time, the airline released its first statement saying it had lost contact with the plane.

"It does not mean, and is not true, that we were not doing anything in that period. It was a full ongoing investigation and search and rescue" by Malaysian authorities, Dunleavy said.

By Saturday afternoon, the rumors had started flying, and airline officials had to verify each one — all of which took time. Did the plane land in Nanning, a southern Chinese city? No, it did not. Was a crash off the Vietnam coast confirmed? It was not. Did Vietnamese officials detect the plane's signal? Officials later denied it.

In the Lido Hotel, meanwhile, red-eyed relatives were seeing the rumors on smartphones but not hearing the airline's verifications. Impatience grew.

After 30 hours had passed without contact with the plane, airline officials told the relatives to prepare for the worst. After about 36 hours, the relatives at the Lido issued their statement, and the man in the black shirt went before reporters.

"They're still telling us they can't find this plane," the man said. "All the information we're getting is from the media. We, who are part of the relatives, feel that this is a very improper and indifferent way to treat the family members."

The airline should have been more communicative from the beginning, even if it didn't have any news to provide, said Ira Kalb, a crisis management expert at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"You have got to get out ahead of the story and you have got to do whatever you can to comfort the relatives of the people that were on the flight," Kalb said. "If you don't have all the information you just say: 'Look, we're investigating and we're trying to get as much information as we can and as soon as we get it we'll pass it on to you. "'

By later Sunday, the airline was trying to speak more regularly with relatives and expedite passport and visa applications for those who wanted to go to Malaysia. Even that came under fire by some family members.

"We don't want to go to Malaysia now," Guo Qishun, whose son-in-law was on the missing plane, said Monday. "We are in China now and the Malaysia Airlines people still treat us with such a bad attitude, if we go to Malaysia, will they take care of us? I doubt it."

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Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Ian Mader, Louise Watt and videojournalists Peng Peng and Helene Franchineau in Beijing contributed to this report.