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Malaysia Airlines: Anger, fear in Amsterdam

After the shooting-down of flight MH17, relatives ask what the carrier has learned from still-missing MH370.

Last updated: 24 Jul 2014 09:22
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As details about the victims emerge and the investigation progresses, anger and fear is growing among air travellers and victims' relatives [EPA]

Amsterdam, The Netherlands - The amount of flowers and messages left at Departure Hall 3 is increasing day by day. At Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, travellers and visitors are mourning the death of the almost 300 people who were killed when an aeroplane was shot down over Ukraine on July 17.

Malaysia Airlines' Flight MH17, bound for Kuala Lumpur, left Amsterdam around noon. It never reached its final destination. The plane crashed over an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists, and is thought to have been downed by a surface-to-air missile. Both the rebels and Ukrainian government have accused one another of being responsible for shooting down the plane. 

On board the jet were 298 people, all of whom died. One-hundred ninety-three of them were Dutch. 

As details about the victims emerge and the investigation progresses, anger and fear are growing among air travellers and victims' relatives. The tragedy of MH17 follows the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing in March. Some people say they will now avoid flying with Malaysia Airlines, while others allege the carrier has not learned from its past mistakes. 

Malaysia Airlines plane crashes in Ukraine

Arthur Laumann from Amsterdam came to the airport to pay tribute to his Indonesian friend, Wayan Sujana, who had visited the Netherlands for a month on his first trip to Europe.

When Laumann learned on Facebook that a plane from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur had crashed, he began to collect every piece of information he could get, calling embassies and trying to reach Malaysia Airlines. "When I dialled the hotline I was put through a couple of times, because nobody knew anything," Laumann told Al Jazeera. "This was frustrating and emotionally exhausting."

Finally he received a confirmation that his friend, Wayan Sujana, was among the victims. "I haven't slept since," he said. 

Laumann says he is disappointed in Malaysia Airlines. Wayan comes from a small Indonesian village, where most people are poor and don't have access to information, Laumann explains. "It took many hours for the family to discover that Wayan had died."

Malaysia Airlines phoned the family the next morning, "many hours after the crash", he said.

Quick response

However, it took only about two hours for Malaysia Airlines to inform the public that it had lost contact with Flight MH17. This was faster than in March: When MH370 went off the radar, Malaysia Airlines took nearly five hours to inform the public and release a statement.

In the first days after the plane disappeared, we were so focused on trying to find the aircraft that we didn't prioritise our communications.

Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia

In the weeks after MH370 disappeared, both the Malaysian government and the largely state-owned Malaysian Airlines came in for harsh criticism. They were accused of being slow, disorganised and unable to effectively handle the crisis. Some victims' relatives alleged that information was being withheld.

In the Wall Street Journal, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak acknowledged that mistakes had been made. "In the first days after the plane disappeared, we were so focused on trying to find the aircraft that we didn't prioritise our communications," Razak admitted in May.

The airline again has released inaccurate information in the early hours after losing contact with the plane. Three people were left off of an initial list of the victims. And 30 hours after the plane disappeared, the nationalities of four passengers had not been verified. According to the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, the challenge lies in the booking system Malaysia Airlines used. When customers bought tickets on their mobile phones, they had to fill in their nationality but not their passport number, which would be more reliable information.

Some people allege Malaysia Airlines has not learned much from past mistakes. A woman at Amsterdam's airport, who asked not to be named, said she cancelled her flight because she does not feel comfortable flying Malaysia Airlines any more.

The airline has offered all passengers the opportunity to rebook or cancel their bookings free of charge. However, the airline did not respond when asked by Al Jazeera how many flights had been changed since Thursday.

The tragedies have fuelled speculation and conspiracy theories. "Another [Malaysia Airlines] flight has gone down. Another [Boeing] 777 … Far too much coincidence for the two situations to not be linked in some way," said Sarah Bajc, the partner of a missing MH370 passenger. "How do we know a similar thing didn't happen to MH370?"

Bajc told AFP news agency that it was "only a matter of time" before a new tragedy would hit Malaysia Airlines - because, she argued, "when symptoms of a disease are ignored, the disease festers".

Tragedies not linked

But aviation experts say there is no reason to believe the two incidents were linked in any way.

Malaysia Airlines, too, says the incident was not the airline's fault. Huib Gorter, vice president of Malaysia Airlines Europe, told journalists in the Schiphol airport lounge on Friday that the aircraft had a clean maintenance record and that its last check was on July 11.

It could have happened to any other airline.

Adrian von Dornberg, aviation expert

Gorter also defended the decision to use the route over eastern Ukraine. He explained that other airlines were flying the same corridor. "This tragic incident could have happened to anyone of us," he said.

Some media have asked if Malaysia Airlines wanted to save fuel and reduce costs by taking the more direct way to Asia. "Economic considerations might have played a role given the airline's financial difficulties," aviation expert Adrian von Dornberg said. "However, the risk was quite low and nobody would have believed that a passenger jet would be shot there in 10,000 metres."

He adds that, at this height, the airspace had been declared safe by Ukraine which passes this information on to the European flight safety body Eurocontrol. "For the airline there was no perceivable risk." Moreover, other airlines were flying the same corridor on the same day. And they still continue to fly over war zones in Iraq, for instance. "It could have happened to any other airline," von Dornberg told Al Jazeera.

Von Dornberg also argues that Malaysia Airlines has learned from the disaster with MH370 earlier this year. "The non-disclosure of data, conflicting information and delays were just unprofessional," he recalls. "This time the communication and the operation among the different actors is much better."

"We are a caring company," added Gorter. Malaysia Airlines is paying $5,000 in immediate support to cover expenses like phone and taxi costs for the relatives of victims. He also promised to arrange a visit for relatives to the scene where the plane crashed. This, however, might take longer than initially expected since the area is controlled by separatists. 

Follow Benjamin Duerr on Twitter: @BenjaminDuerr

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Al Jazeera
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