It appears that the Malaysian government has not learned from its mistakes.
For Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to announce that the debris found on Reunion Island conclusively belongs to MH370, when French authorities directly involved with the inspection of the debris in question — a flaperon– are calling the discovery a good supposition, is reckless. This is not about semantics. This is about responsibility.
Allow me to step out of the airline pilot box for a moment. Discussing the investigative analysis of the flaperon, a flight control surface, and how this inspection relates to the impact of the 777 with the water has been well discussed both on air and on this website. I can’t add anything further that hasn’t already been covered. But I can help with the understanding of the human aspect of the accident investigation process.
First, for all intents and purposes, the aircraft part found has a high likelihood of belonging to MH370. Boeing has said that the part is a flaperon from a 777. If it’s from a 777, then it’s from MH370. There are no other unaccounted-for airplanes of this type in the world. The additional parts and pieces discovered after the flaperon — well, the jury is still out on those items.
Now to the human element of accident investigation: Through my pilots union and the cooperation of my airline, I have been trained in critical incident stress management: CISM. My involvement with CISM has included various incidents and accidents, with the most memorable a crash in Rockaway, New York, in November of 2001.
I spent many hours among the devastation. The experience was a tremendous lesson. No two people exposed to such trauma are affected in exactly the same way. One person’s perception is another person’s reality.
And that perception is very important to the families of the 239 souls lost with MH370. Because of the difficulty in processing such a catastrophic event, rational thought often goes out the window. If a history of misinformation has been established, this only adds to the trauma. Mistrust and anger become natural parts of the emotional reaction. This is normal.
That is why it is of the utmost importance to only release established facts during the investigation process. Speculation from outside sources will always occur, but at least the credibility of the accident investigation team will remain intact. The best example of a textbook investigation process on properly disseminating information to the public was the crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco. I give former NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman high marks.
Most accidents are processed immediately. An airplane crashes. Some passengers survive. Some passengers die. But with MH370, for over 500 days, there was no concrete proof. Now, in the form of a flaperon, we have proof.
Unfortunately for the families of the victims, this evidence re-opens emotional wounds. Yes, the world is re-energized, anticipating that the mystery will be unraveled — but the investigative process will still take time. Even if the search teams found the main wreckage today, it may take years to fully analyze the data. A statement of probable cause will require methodical research, especially considering the unusual circumstances of MH370.
It is certainly important to maintain our optimism that we will find the cause of the mysterious disappearance, but let’s not lose sight of the fact investigations take time. For the sake of the families, it is my hope that the governments involved get their act together. Communicate the facts only. And if this means withholding information from the media for a period of time, so be it.
Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 30 years of flying experience. He is also a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.