HANOI/KIEV/KUALA LUMPUR – Two Boeing 777s. Two incredibly rare aviation disasters. And one airline.
In what appears to be a mind-boggling coincidence, Malaysia is reeling from the second tragedy to hit its national airline in less than five months.
On March 8, a Malaysia Airlines jetliner vanished about an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, spawning an international mystery that remains unsolved. On Thursday, the airline — and the nation — were pitched into another crisis after the same type of aircraft was reported shot down over Ukraine.
Ukraine said the plane was brought down by a missile over the violence-racked eastern part of the country. Other details were only just beginning to emerge.
Ukraine’s separatist rebels said Friday they had found eight of the 12 recording devices from the plane. An assistant to the insurgency’s military commander, Igor Girkin, said Girkin was still considering whether to give international investigators access to the sprawling crash site.
World leaders demanded an international investigation as Kiev and Moscow blamed each other for the tragedy.One U.S. official said Washington strongly suspected the 777 was downed by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile fired by Ukrainian separatists backed by Moscow.
The struggling airline and Malaysia must now prepare for another agonizing encounter with grief, recriminations, international scrutiny and serious legal and diplomatic implications.
“This is a tragic day in what has already been a tragic year for Malaysia,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said.
Just how could disaster strike one airline twice in such a short space of time?
“Either one of these events has an unbelievably low probability,” said John Cox, president and CEO of Safety Operating Systems and a former airline pilot and accident investigator. “To have two in a just a few months of each other is certainly unprecedented.”
Experts said the Malaysia Airlines brand may become the airline industry’s equivalent of asbestos or News of the World: toxic to the public and impossible to redeem.
Najib said the flight route had been declared safe by the global civil aviation body.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said on Friday that the route approved by the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization over Ukraine has been closed after Thursday’s “incident.”
The first disaster deeply scarred Malaysia and left the world dumbstruck. How could a Boeing 777-200ER, a modern jumbo jet, simply disappear? Flight 370 had veered off course during a flight to Beijing and is believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean far off the western Australian coast.
The search area has changed several times, but no sign of the aircraft, or the 239 people aboard, has been found. Until then, how the plane got there is likely to remain a mystery.
On Thursday, there was no mystery over the whereabouts of the Boeing 777-200ER, which went down on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 283 passengers and 15 crew members. Its wreckage was found in Ukraine, and there were no survivors.
Officials said the plane was shot down at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet). The region has seen severe fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists in recent days.
Malaysia Airlines was widely criticized for the way it handled the Flight 370 hunt and investigation. Some relatives of those on board accused the airline of engaging in a cover-up, and there have been persistent conspiracy theories over the fate of the plane, including that it was shot down.
Malaysia Airlines was especially criticized for the way it handled the communications around the missing jetliner, which presented unique challenges because of the uncertainty facing the relatives of those on board.
With the plane crashing Thursday over land and its wreckage already located, there will be no such uncertainty. But the investigation will be just as sensitive. There will be legal and diplomatic implications, depending on who was responsible.
The accident will surely inflict more financial damage on Malaysia Airlines. Even before the March disaster, it reported a loss of $370 million in 2013. After the Flight 370 disaster, passengers canceled flights, and even though the airline is insured, it faces uncertainty over payouts to the victims’ families.
“There’s little precedent for an airline going through what they have gone through, let alone surviving it,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of industry newsletter Airline Weekly.