Skip to main content

Quest: Malaysia Airlines jet was 'at safest point' in flight

By Paul Armstrong, CNN
March 9, 2014 -- Updated 0259 GMT (1059 HKT)
  • Quest: Airliner would have been classed as in the "cruise portion of the flight"
  • "This is the safest part, nothing is supposed to go wrong," says Quest
  • Malaysia Airlines operates fleet of 15 Boeing 777-200 aircraft
  • Quest: Reputable, experienced operators with good safety record

(CNN) -- As mystery surrounds the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370, which was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early Saturday, CNN's aviation expert Richard Quest said the airliner would have been at the safest point in the flight.

"It was two hours into the flight -- this would have been classed as the 'cruise portion of the flight,'" he said. "You break down the flight into taxi, take-off, climb out and then cruise.

"So in that particular point of the flight, this is the safest part, nothing is supposed to go wrong. The aircraft is at altitude on auto-pilot, the pilots are making minor corrections and changes for height as the plane burns off fuel -- the plane will be going higher and higher -- so this is extremely serious that something happened at this point in the flight."

READ MORE: Still no contact, stolen passports mystery

Quest, who coincidentally had been working on a story with the carrier recently, said the aircraft -- a Boeing 777-200 -- would have been around 11 years old, powered by two British-made Rolls-Royce Trent engines.

Map: Malaysia airliner lost contact  Map: Malaysia airliner lost contact
Map: Malaysia airliner lost contactMap: Malaysia airliner lost contact
Stolen passports raise terror concerns
U.S.-based firm: 20 employees on plane
At least 3 Americans aboard missing plane
Plane loses contact with airline

"So it's not a particularly old aircraft. Malaysia has 15 777-200s in its fleet, it's an extremely experienced operator of this type of aircraft. It's a very reputable airline with a very good safety record."

READ MORE: First officer's 'textbook-perfect' flying

It takes three or four minutes for an airliner to fall out of the sky when it is at cruising altitude, Quest said. He added, "we don't know and won't know for some time whether the plane broke up in the air or entered the water in one piece."

Once that is discovered, investigators can analyze if a crash was due to mechanical or structural failure, a fire, or terrorism, he noted.

Back-up power

Greg Feith, a former investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the United States, suggested the pilots should have been able to report in, even if power on the aircraft had failed.

"The airplane by certification has to have battery back-up power -- they still have to be able to utilize certain flight instruments and communication tools to complete the flight safely.

"So you could lose all the generators, you could have both engines out, but the battery back-up -- which will only work for a certain time -- is intended for emergency situations."

Feith also pointed to the possibility of an issue with the pressurization of the aircraft.

"If you have a high-altitude pressurization problem, catastrophic decompression, the time of useful consciousness (the time a pilot can operate with an insufficient oxygen supply) in the 30,000-40,000-feet range is a matter of seconds."

READ MORE: How does a jet disappear?

Asked whether it was likely the airliner could have made an emergency landing, Quest said it was possible but unlikely.

"You're not talking about a Cessna here. You're talking about a long-haul, wide-bodied aircraft and that puts it into a completely different league."

Search for aircraft

The lack of communication suggests that something most unfortunate has happened -- though that does not suggest there are not any persons that need to be rescued and secured.
Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General, US DOT

But with speculation mounting over whether Flight MH 370, which was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew, went down on land -- perhaps in Vietnam -- or in the South China Sea, one aviation expert says it's essential to find the plane as soon as possible in case there are survivors.

"Given the modern communications and the truly modern equipped (Boeing) 777, it's highly unlikely this plane would have landed somewhere not contactable," Mary Schiavo, the former Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, told CNN. "Depending on how the plane has gone down, there could be many survivors in need of aid.

"That plane has many different ways to locate it: Automatic beacons that tell you where it is; there are several ways to contact it both with radios and GPS, as well as computer communications within the cockpit.

"But the lack of communication suggests that something most unfortunate has happened -- though that does not suggest there are not any persons that need to be rescued and secured."

Schiavo warned that if for some reason the transmitters on the airliner are not operating, then the search will obviously become far more complex and time-consuming.

"If they are not working then sadly there are similarities with the Air France plane, which was traveling from Brazil to Paris, France and was lost in the ocean. That was very difficult to locate because of the depth of the ocean," she said.

Air France Flight 447 -- an Airbus A330-203 -- plunged into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing all 228 people on board. It took four searches over the course of nearly two years to locate the bulk of the wreckage and the majority of the bodies in a mountain range deep under the ocean.

The incident report detailed how the pilots failed to respond effectively to problems with the plane's speed sensors or to correct its trajectory when things first started to go wrong.

Aviation expert Jim Tilmon said the Boeing 777-200 was as sophisticated an aircraft as they come with an excellent safety record.

"The only fatality has been from the Asiana crash in San Francisco (last year)," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "There's been one other 777 that had some problems but no-one was hurt. This is really a shock in lots of ways."

Part of complete coverage on
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
The search for MH370 is moving to an area farther south in the Indian Ocean, said the Australian Deputy Prime Minister.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 0033 GMT (0833 HKT)
Erin Burnett speaks to Miles O'Brien about the latest in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
June 18, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Ten experts say that the search for MH370 should move hundreds of miles away from the previous search area.
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
His wife never came home from her flight on MH370, and now K.S. Narendran is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Families are desperate for results as the search for MH370 reaches a grim milestone. Anna Coren reports from Beijing.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Relatives of passengers are launching an effort to raise $5 million for investigations and a "whistle blower" reward.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 0731 GMT (1531 HKT)
Making sure another plane is never "lost" again is the immediate priority for the airline industry.
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 1536 GMT (2336 HKT)
This handout photo taken on April 7, 2014 and released on April 9, 2014 by Australian Defence shows Maritime Warfare Officer, Sub Lieutenant Ryan Penrose watching HMAS Success as HMAS Perth approaches for a replenishment at sea while searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Two fresh signals have been picked up Australian ship Ocean Shield in the search for missing Malaysian flight MH370, raising hopes that wreckage will be found within days even as black box batteries start to expire.
Was the sound of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 striking the water captured by ocean devices used to listen for signs of nuclear blasts?
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2229 GMT (0629 HKT)
What was believed to be the best hope of finding the missing plane is now being called a false hope. Rene Marsh explains.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2105 GMT (0505 HKT)
Involved parties, including the manufacturer Boeing, are bracing for a long public relations siege.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
Official: The four acoustic pings at the center of the search for Flight 370 are no longer believed to have come from the plane's black boxes.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
There is one fundamental question which continues to swirl: Has Inmarsat got its numbers right?
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1213 GMT (2013 HKT)
Data from communications between satellites and missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was released
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 0742 GMT (1542 HKT)
Family members of the people aboard missing plane want independent investigators to review the newly released satellite data.
May 21, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
CNN's Richard Quest explains what kind of information should be contained in the Inmarsat data from Flight MH370.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The underwater search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane will effectively be put on hold this week, and may not resume until August at the earliest.
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
Movie-makers in Cannes have announced they're making a thriller based on the disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370.
May 6, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
The search for the missing Boeing 777 has gone on for eight weeks now. CNN's David Molko looks back at this difficult, emotional assignment.