Analysis of satellite communication:16–17
BackgroundACARS communications protocol, but may also be used to transmit FANS and ATN messages and provide voice, fax and data links using other protocols. The aircraft's satellite data unit (SDU) is used to send and receive signals with the satellite communications network; it operates independently of other aircraft equipment which communicate through the SATCOM system, many using the ACARS protocol. Signals from the SDU are relayed by a satellite, which simply changes the signal's frequency, and then received by a ground station which processes the signal and, if applicable, routes it to its destination (e.g.. Malaysia Airlines' operations centre); signals to the aircraft are sent in reverse order. When the SDU is powered on and attempts to connect with the Inmarsat network, it will transmit a log-on request, which the ground station acknowledges.:17 This is, in part, to determine that the SDU belongs to an active service subscriber and also used to determine which satellite should be used to transmit messages to the SDU. After connecting, if a ground station has not received any contact from a terminal for one hour,[k] the ground station will transmit a "log-on interrogation" message—informally referred to as a "ping";:18 an active terminal automatically responds. The entire process of interrogating the terminal is referred to as a 'handshake'.
Communications from 02:25 to 08:19 MYTAlthough the ACARS data link on Flight 370 stopped functioning between 01:07 and 02:03 MYT,:36 the SDU remained operable. After last contact by primary radar west of Malaysia, the following records were recorded in the log of Inmarsat's ground station at Perth, Western Australia (all times MYT/UTC+8)::18[l]
- 02:25:27 – First handshake – a log-on request initiated by aircraft
- 02:39:52 – Ground to aircraft telephone call, acknowledged by SDU, unanswered
- 03:41:00 – Second handshake (initiated by ground station)
- 04:41:02 – Third handshake (initiated by ground station)
- 05:41:24 – Fourth handshake (initiated by ground station)
- 06:41:19 – Fifth handshake (initiated by ground station)
- 07:13:58 – Ground to aircraft telephone call, acknowledged by SDU, unanswered
- 08:10:58 – Sixth handshake (initiated by ground station)
- 08:19:29 – Seventh handshake (initiated by aircraft; widely reported as a "partial handshake'", consisting of two transmissions:
- 08:19:29.416 – "log-on request" message transmitted by aircraft (seventh "partial" handshake)
- 08:19:37.443 – "log-on acknowledge" message transmitted by aircraft, last transmission received from Flight 370
DeductionsA few deductions can be made from the satellite communications. The first is that the aircraft remained operational until at least 08:19—seven hours after final contact was made with air traffic control over the South China Sea. The varying burst frequency offset (BFO) values indicate the aircraft was moving at speed. The aircraft's SDU needs location and track information to keep its antenna pointed towards the satellite, so it can also be deduced that the aircraft's navigation system was operational.:4
Since the aircraft did not respond to a ping at 09:15, it can be concluded that at some point between 08:19 and 09:15, the aircraft lost the ability to communicate with the ground station. The log-on message sent from the aircraft at 08:19:29 was "log-on request".:22 There are only a few reasons the SDU would transmit a log-on request, such as a power interruption, software failure, loss of critical systems providing input to the SDU, or a loss of the link due to the aircraft's attitude.:22 Investigators consider the most likely reason to be that they were sent during power-up after an electrical outage.:33 At 08:19, the aircraft had been airborne for 7 h 38 min; the typical Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight is 51⁄2 hours and fuel exhaustion was likely.:33:33 In the event of fuel exhaustion and engine flame-out—which would eliminate power to the SDU—the aircraft's ram air turbine would deploy, providing power to some instruments and flight controls, including the SDU.:33 Approximately 90 seconds after the 02:25 handshake—also a log-on request—communications from the aircraft's inflight entertainment system were recorded in the ground station log. Similar messages would be expected following the 08:19 handshake but none were received, supporting the fuel starvation scenario.:22
AnalysisTwo parameters associated with these transmissions that were recorded in a log at the ground station were key to the investigation:
- Burst time offset (BTO) — the time difference between when a signal is sent from the ground station and when the response is received. This measure is twice the distance from the ground station to satellite to the aircraft and includes the time that the SDU takes between receiving and responding to the message and time between reception and processing at the ground station. This measure can be analysed to determine the distance between the satellite and the aircraft and results in a ring on the Earth's surface that is equidistant from the satellite at the calculated distance, which can be reduced to arcs by eliminating parts of the rings outside the aircraft's range.:18:4–6
- Burst frequency offset (BFO) — the difference between the expected and received frequency of transmissions. The difference is caused by Doppler shift as the signals travelled from the aircraft to the satellite to the ground station; the frequency translations made in the satellite and at the ground station; a small, constant error (bias) in the SDU that results from drift and ageing; and compensation applied by the SDU to counter the Doppler shift on the uplink. This measure can be analysed to determine the aircraft's speed and heading, but multiple combinations of speed and heading can be valid solutions.:18:9–11
Possible in-flight events
Power interruptionThe SATCOM link functioned normally from pre-flight (beginning at 00:00 MYT) until it responded to a ground-to-air ACARS message with an acknowledge message at 01:07. Ground-to-air ACARS messages continued to be transmitted to Flight 370 until Inmarsat's network sent multiple "Request for Acknowledge" messages at 02:03, without a response from the aircraft. At some time between 01:07 and 02:03, power was lost to the SDU. At 02:25, the aircraft's SDU sent a "log-on request".:22:36–39 It is not common for a log-on request to be made in-flight, but it could occur for multiple reasons. An analysis of the characteristics and timing of these requests suggest a power interruption in-flight is the most likely culprit.:33 As the power interruption was not due to engine flame-out, per ATSB, it may have been the result of manually switching off the aircraft's electrical system.:33
Unresponsive crew or hypoxiaAn analysis by the ATSB comparing the evidence available for Flight 370 with three categories of accidents—an in-flight upset (e.g., stall), a glide event (e.g., engine failure, fuel starvation), and an unresponsive crew or hypoxia event—concluded that an unresponsive crew or hypoxia event "best fit the available evidence":34 for the five-hour period of the flight as it travelled south over the Indian Ocean without communication or significant deviations in its track,:34 likely on autopilot. There is no consensus among investigators on the unresponsive crew or hypoxia theory.
Possible causes of disappearance
Further information: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 unofficial disappearance theories
Passenger involvementTwo men identified on the passenger manifest, an Austrian and an Italian, had reported their passports stolen in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Interpol stated that both passports were listed on its database of lost and stolen passports, and that no check had been made against its database. Malaysia's Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, criticised his country's immigration officials for failing to stop the passengers travelling on the stolen European passports. The two one-way tickets purchased for the holders of the stolen passports were booked through China Southern Airlines. It was reported that an Iranian had ordered the cheapest tickets to Europe via telephone in Bangkok, Thailand and paid in cash. The two passengers were later identified as Iranian men, one aged 19 and the other 29, who had entered Malaysia on 28 February using valid Iranian passports. The head of Interpol said the organization was "inclined to conclude that it was not a terrorist incident". The two men were believed to be asylum seekers.
United States and Malaysian officials were reviewing the backgrounds of every passenger named on the manifest. On 18 March, the Chinese government announced that it had checked all of the Chinese citizens on the aircraft and ruled out the possibility that any were potential hijackers. One passenger who worked as a flight engineer for a Swiss jet charter company was briefly suspected as a potential hijacker because he was thought to have the relevant skill set.
Crew involvementInvestigators believe someone in the cockpit of Flight 370 re-programmed the aircraft's autopilot before it travelled south across the Indian Ocean. Police searched the homes of the pilots and seized financial records for all 12 crew members, including bank statements, credit card bills and mortgage documents. On 2 April 2014, Malaysia's Police Inspector-General said that more than 170 interviews had been conducted as part of Malaysia's criminal investigation, including interviews with family members of the pilots and crew.
Media reports have claimed that Malaysian police have identified Captain Shah as the prime suspect if human intervention is proven to be the cause of Flight 370's disappearance. The United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation reconstructed the deleted data from Captain Shah's home flight simulator; a Malaysian government spokesman indicated that "nothing sinister" had been found on it. The preliminary report issued by Malaysia in March 2015 states that there was "no evidence of recent or imminent significant financial transactions carried out":20 by any of the pilots or crew and that analysis of the behaviour of the pilots on CCTV showed "no significant behavioural changes".:21
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Information sharingPublic communication from Malaysian officials regarding the loss of the flight was initially beset with confusion.[m] The Malaysian government and the airline released imprecise, incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate information, with civilian officials sometimes contradicting military leaders.Malaysian officials were criticised for such persistent release of contradictory information, most notably regarding the last point and time of contact with the aircraft.
Although Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is also the country's Defence Minister, denied the existence of problems between the participating countries, academics said that because of regional conflicts, there were genuine trust issues involved in co-operation and sharing intelligence, and that these were hampering the search. International relations experts said entrenched rivalries over sovereignty, security, intelligence, and national interests made meaningful multilateral co-operation very difficult. A Chinese academic made the observation that the parties were searching independently, thus it was not a multilateral search effort. The Guardian noted the Vietnamese permission given for Chinese aircraft to overfly its airspace as a positive sign of co-operation. Vietnam temporarily scaled back its search operations after the country's Deputy Transport Minister cited a lack of communication from Malaysian officials despite requests for more information. China, through the official Xinhua News Agency, said that the Malaysian government ought to take charge and conduct the operation with greater transparency, a point echoed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry days later.
Malaysia had initially declined to release raw data from its military radar, deeming the information "too sensitive," but later acceded. Defence experts suggested that giving others access to radar information could be sensitive on a military level. As an example: "The rate at which they can take the picture can also reveal how good the radar system is." One suggested that some countries could already have had radar data on the aircraft but were reluctant to share any information that could potentially reveal their defence capabilities and compromise their own security.Similarly, submarines patrolling the South China Sea might have information in the event of a water impact, and sharing such information could reveal their locations and listening capabilities.
Criticism was also levelled at the delay of the search efforts. On 11 March, three days after the aircraft disappeared, British satellite company Inmarsat had provided officials (or its partner, SITA) with data suggesting the aircraft was nowhere near the areas in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea being searched at that time; and may have diverted its course through a southern or northern corridor. This information was only publicly acknowledged and released by Najib on 15 March in a press conference. Explaining why information about satellite signals had not been made available earlier, Malaysia Airlines said that the raw satellite signals needed to be verified and analysed "so that their significance could be properly understood" before it could publicly confirm their existence. Hishammuddin said Malaysian and US investigators had immediately discussed the Inmarsat data upon receiving them on 12 March, and on two occasions, both groups agreed that it needed further processing and sent the data to the US twice for this purpose. Data analysis was completed on 14 March: by then, the AAIB had independently arrived at the same conclusion.
In June 2014, relatives of passengers on Flight 370 began a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise US$100,000—with an ultimate goal of raising US$5 million—as a reward to encourage anyone who knows the location of Flight 370 or the cause of its disappearance to reveal what they know. The campaign, which ended 8 August 2014, raised US$100,516 from 1007 contributors.
See also: Malaysia Airlines § 2014 aircraft lossesA month after the disappearance, Malaysia Airlines' chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya acknowledged that ticket sales had declined but failed to provide specific details. This may partially result from the suspension of the airline's advertisement campaigns following the disappearance. Ahmad stated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the airline's "primary focus...is that we do take care of the families in terms of their emotional needs and also their financial needs. It is important that we provide answers for them. It is important that the world has answers, as well."In further remarks, Ahmad said he was not sure when the airline could start repairing its image, but that the airline was adequately insured to cover the financial loss stemming from Flight 370's disappearance. In China, where the majority of passengers were from, bookings on Malaysia Airlines were down 60 percent in March.
Malaysia Airlines retired the Flight 370 (MH370) flight number and replaced it with Flight 318 (MH318) beginning 14 March. This follows a common practice among airlines to rename flights following notorious accidents. The flight—Malaysia Airline's second daily flight to Beijing—was later suspended beginning 2 May; according to insiders, this was due to lack of demand.
Malaysia Airlines was given US$110 million from insurers in March 2014 to cover initial payments to passengers' families and the search effort. In May, remarks from lead reinsurer of the flight, Allianz, indicated the insured market loss on Flight 370, including the search, was about US$350 million.
Financial troublesAt the time of Flight 370's disappearance, Malaysia Airlines was struggling to cut costs to compete with a wave of new, low-cost carriers in the region. In the previous three years, Malaysia Airlines had booked losses of: RM1.17 billion (US$356 million) in 2013, RM433 million in 2012, and RM2.5 billion in 2011. Malaysia Airlines lost RM443.4 million (US$137.4 million) in the first quarter of 2014 (January–March). The second quarter—the first full quarter in the aftermath of Flight 370's disappearance—saw a loss of RM307.04 million (US$97.6 million), which represented a 75 percent increase over losses from the second-quarter of 2013. Industry analysts expect Malaysia Airlines to lose further market share and face a challenging environment to stand out from competitors while addressing their financial plight. The company's stock, down as much as 20 percent following the disappearance of Flight 370, had fallen 80 percent over the previous five years, which contrasts with a rise in the Malaysian stock market of about 80 percent over the same period.
Many analysts and the media suggested that Malaysia Airlines would need to rebrand and repair its image and/or require government assistance to return to profitability. The loss of Flight 17 in July greatly exacerbated Malaysia Airline's woes. The combined effect on consumer confidence of the loss of Flights 370 and 17 and the airline's poor financial performance led Khazanah Nasional—the majority shareholder (69.37 percent) and a Malaysian state-run investment arm—to announce on 8 August its plan to purchase the remainder of the airline, thereby renationalising it.
Compensation for passengers' kinLack of evidence in determining the cause of Flight 370's disappearance, indeed even physical evidence that the aircraft crashed, raises many issues regarding responsibility for the accident and payments made by insurance agencies. Under the Montreal Convention, it is the carrier's responsibility to prove lack of fault in an accident and each passenger's next-of-kin are automatically entitled, regardless of fault, to a payment of approximately US$175,000[n] from the airline's insurance company—a total of nearly US$40 million for the 227 passengers on board.
Malaysia Airlines would still be vulnerable to civil lawsuits from passengers' families.Compensation awarded during or settled out-of-court during civil trials will likely vary widely among passengers based on country of the court. An American court could likely award upwards of US$8–10 million, while Chinese courts would likely award a small fraction of that. Despite the announcement that Flight 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean, it was not until 29 January 2015 that the Malaysian government officially declared Flight 370 an accident with no survivors, a move that would allow compensation claims to be made. The first lawsuit related to the disappearance was filed in October 2014–before Flight 370 was declared an accident–on behalf of two Malaysian boys whose father was a passenger,[o] for negligence in failing to contact the aircraft soon after it was lost and for breach of contract for failing to bring the passenger to his destination.
Malaysian Airlines offered ex gratia condolence payments soon after the disappearance. In China, families of passengers were offered ¥31,000 (about US$5,000) "comfort money"; but some families rejected the offer. It was also reported that Malaysian relatives received only $2,000. In June, Malaysia's deputy Foreign Minister Hamzah Zainuddin said that families of seven passengers received $50,000 advance compensation from Malaysia Airlines, but that full payout would come after the aircraft is found or officially declared lost (which later occurred in January 2015).
Malaysia The Malaysian military became aware of the unidentified flight only after reviewing radar recordings several hours after Flight 370's disappearance. Not only was the failure to recognise and react to the unidentified aircraft a security blunder, it was also a missed opportunity to intercept Flight 370 and prevent the time-consuming and expensive search operation.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak responded to criticism of his government in an opinion piece published in the The Wall Street Journal:
Without physical evidence, or a clear explanation for why this happened, peoples' attention has naturally focused on the authorities—and Malaysia has borne the brunt of the criticism. In the passage of time, I believe Malaysia will be credited for doing its best under near-impossible circumstances. It is no small feat for a country the size of ours to overcome diplomatic and military sensitivities and bring 26 different countries together to conduct one of the world's largest peacetime search operations. But we didn't get everything right...the response time should and will be investigated...I pledge that Malaysia will keep searching for the plane for as long as it takes.In the opinion piece, Najib goes on to emphasise the need for the aviation industry to "not only learn the lessons of MH370 but implement them," saying in closing that "the world learned from [Air France Flight 447] but didn't act. The same mistake must not be made again."
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim strongly criticised the Malaysian government regarding its response to Flight 370's disappearance and the military's response when Flight 370 turned back over the Malay Peninsula; he has called for an international committee to take charge of the investigation "to save the image of the country and to save the country." Malaysian authorities have accused Anwar—who was jailed on contentious charges the day before Flight 370 disappeared—of politicising the crisis. Flight 370's captain was a supporter of Anwar and the two knew each other.
Malaysia's Defence and Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein—a central figure in the search and investigation of Flight 370 and active on Twitter—was criticised for responding/retweeting a tweet by a Malaysian journalist: "Right u are:) @IsmailAmsyar: #MH370 is a blessing in disguise 4 all of us. I understand now d beauty of unity & sweetness of having each other." The remarks were viewed as insensitive to the victims' families. Both tweets were removed. Questioned why Malaysia did not scramble fighter jets to intercept the aircraft as it tracked back across the Malay Peninsula, he noted that it was deemed a commercial aircraft and was not hostile, remarking: "If you're not going to shoot it down, what's the point of sending [a fighter jet] up?"
The poor response to the crisis and lack of transparency in the response has brought attention to the state of media in Malaysia. After decades of having tight control of media, during which government officials were accustomed to passing over issues without scrutiny or accountability, Malaysia was suddenly thrust to the forefront of global media and unable to adjust to demands for transparency. Confronted by a foreign journalist about the slow response and conflicting information, Defence and Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein responded that he had received "a lot of feedback saying we’ve been very responsible in our actions...it’s very irresponsible of you to say that."
ChinaChinese Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng reacted sceptically to the conclusion by the Malaysian government that the aircraft had gone down with no survivors, demanding "all the relevant information and evidence about the satellite data analysis" and said that the Malaysian government must "finish all the work including search and rescue." The following day, 25 March, Chinese president Xi Jinping sent a special envoy to Kuala Lumpur to consult with the Malaysian government over the missing aircraft;
Relatives of passengersOn 25 March, around two hundred family members of the Chinese passengers protested outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing. Relatives who had arrived in Kuala Lumpur after the announcement continued with their protest, accusing Malaysia of hiding the truth and harbouring the murderer. They also wanted an apology for the Malaysian government's poor initial handling of the disaster and its "premature" conclusion of loss, drawn without physical evidence. An op-ed for China Daily said that Malaysia was not wholly to be blamed for its poor handling of such a "bizarre" and "unprecedented crisis," and appealed to Chinese people not to allow emotions to prevail over evidence and rationality. The Chinese ambassador to Malaysia defended the Malaysian government's response, stating that the relatives' "radical and irresponsible opinions do not represent the views of Chinese people and the Chinese government". The ambassador also strongly criticised Western media for having "published false news, stoked conflict and even spread rumours" to the detriment of relatives and of Sino–Malaysian relations. On the other hand, a US Department of Defense official criticised China for what he perceived as providing apparently false leads that detracted from the search effort and wasted time and resources.
BoycottsSome Chinese have boycotted all things Malaysian, including vacations and singers, in protest of Malaysia's handling of the Flight 370 investigation. Bookings on Malaysia Airlines from China, where the majority of passengers were from, were down 60 percent in March. In late March, several major Chinese ticketing agencies—ELong, LY.com, Qunar and Mango—banned sale of airline tickets to Malaysia and several large Chinese travel agencies reported a 50 percent drop in tourists compared to the same period the year before. China is the third largest source of visitors for Malaysia, accounting for 1.79 million tourists. One market analyst predicted a 20–40 percent drop in Chinese tourists to Malaysia, resulting in a loss of 4-8 billion yuan (RM2.1-4.2 billion; US$650 million-1.3 billion).
The boycotts have largely been led or supported by celebrities. Film star Chen Kun posted a message to Weibo—where he has 70 million followers—stating: "I...will start a boycott from my inner heart on any commercials and travel relating to Malaysia. This will last...until the Malaysian government takes down their clown-like mask and tells the truth." The post was shared over 70,000 times and drew over 30,000 comments. Over 337,000 people retweeted a tweet from TV host Meng Fei, which said "I’ve never been to Malaysia and I do not plan to go there in the future. If you feel the same, please retweet this message."
China and Malaysia had dubbed 2014 to be the "Malaysia–China Friendship Year" to celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The fact that, in a digitally-connected world, a modern aircraft could disappear has been met with surprise and disbelief by the public; and while changes in the aviation industry often take years to be implemented, airlines and air transport authorities have responded swiftly to take action on several measures to prevent a similar incident from occurring.
Aircraft trackingInternational Air Transport Association—an industry trade organisation representing over 240 airlines (representing 84 percent of global air traffic)—and the United Nation's civil aviation body—the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)—are working on implementing new measures to track aircraft in flight in real time. The IATA created a task force (which includes several outside stakeholders) to define a minimum set of requirements that any tracking system must meet, allowing airlines to decide the best solution to track their aircraft. The IATA's task force plans to come up with several short-, medium-, and long-term solutions to ensure that information is provided in a timely manner to support search, rescue, and recovery activities in the wake of an aircraft accident. The task force was expected to provide a report to the ICAO on 30 September 2014, but on that day said that the report would be delayed, citing the need for further clarification on some issues. In December 2014, the IATA task force recommended that, within 12 months, airlines track commercial aircraft in no longer than 15-minute intervals, although it still has not released its report and full details of proposed changes. The IATA itself did not support the deadline, which it believes cannot be met by all airlines, but the proposed standard has the support of the ICAO. Although the ICAO can set standards, it has no legal authority and such standards must be adopted by member states.
In May 2014, Inmarsat said it would offer its tracking service for free to all aircraft equipped with an Inmarsat satellite connection (which amounts to nearly all commercial airliners). Inmarsat has also changed the time period for handshakes with their terminals from one hour to 15 minutes.:2