How Malaysia missteps on MH370 eroded families' trust

Story highlights

  • An analyst offers advice to the Malaysian government: "Communicate the facts only"
  • Families of those on MH370 are skeptical about the latest update on the debris found
  • Malaysian authorities have given inconsistent or incomplete information in the past

(CNN)It was heralded as a breakthrough in the mystery of the missing jet.

Malaysia's Prime Minister appeared before television cameras to say investigators had conclusively determined that aircraft debris found on an island in the Indian Ocean came from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished on March 8, 2014, with 239 people aboard.
    Prime Minister Najib Razak did not equivocate: "It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that an international team of experts have conclusively confirmed that the aircraft debris found on Reunion Island is indeed from MH370."
    The search for the plane is an international effort, but Najib, as the leader of the country where the flight originated, should be a source as informed as anyone.
    So, why have some of the victims' families reacted with skepticism, and even anger, at the Malaysian announcement? One key reason is that Malaysia has made several missteps in handling the disappearance of MH370.
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    The misfires include an impersonal text to relatives of people aboard to say that no one survived -- and saying days later that some people may have survived after all. They also include a failure to immediately detect radar clues. Malaysian authorities also announced the final words heard from the cockpit, only to say later that the pilot or co-pilot said something slightly different.
    That helps explain why some relatives of MH370 passengers have reacted with skepticism to the Malaysian Prime Minister's definitive assertion, a suspicion that was only bolstered when a French prosecutor, who actually examined the piece of debris in question, used slightly less conclusive language; he said that the part probably came from MH370 but that more tests were needed to say so with absolute certainty.
    "I don't believe it," one family member told CNN. "This announcement is very irresponsible."

    Analyst: Latest news is suspect

    The families have every right to be skeptical, said CNN safety analyst David Soucie. Even with Thursday's government announcement that a window and seat cushion are believed to be part of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Soucie said he found the news "suspect," in part, because none of the hundreds of people involved in the search found anything until the Malaysians arrived.
    "All of the debris studies show rapid and extensive debris disbursement projections," he said in an email. "Could debris of such diverse size, weight and buoyancy end up on the same small island at the same time? Doubtful."
    The Malaysian government has certainly been wrong before when it comes to the hunt for Flight 370.
    In an opinion piece critical of the Malaysian government, CNN aviation analyst Les Abend questioned whether it had learned its lesson from past missteps.
    "Because of the difficulty in processing such a catastrophic event like an aircraft accident, rational thought often goes out the window," he wrote. "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."
    He further offered advice on how the governments involved in the search could get their acts together: "Communicate the facts only. And if this means withholding information from the media for a period of time, so be it."
    The doubts only deepened after the French team inspecting the debris said more tests are being done to be completely certain.
    Another family member said: "The families want 100% confirmation. ... That means Boeing company and the French investigators. We don't want 99%. Malaysian authorities have been trying to force a closure ... for themselves, not for the families."
    What missteps have Malaysian authorities made since MH370 disappeared? Critics have highlighted several in their early response.

    Accusations of errors, incompetence

    Malaysian military radar captured signatures of what was believed to have been Flight 370, but they weren't immediately noticed.
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    While the radar data was the key reason for expanding the search west of Malaysia, it took officials until March 11 -- three days after the disappearance -- to explain why they were looking so far off the plane's expected course. All the while, search efforts continued in places where data showed it could not have been -- the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea.
    A report issued a month after the plane's disappearance also highlighted snafus in crucial communication between air traffic control centers and Malaysia Airlines on the morning Flight 370 disappeared.
    These kept officials from realizing the airplane had gone hundreds of miles off course for several hours and delayed attempts to find it.

    Failure to share information

    China and some U.S. officials expressed frustration over what they said was Malaysia's initial failure to share information or accept more offers of help.
    "Time is life," said a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, eight days after the plane's disappearance.
    The lack of concrete information created plenty of space for speculation and conspiracy theories to run rife. Was the plane hijacked? Could terrorism have been involved? Was the plane in fact brought down somewhere on land?

    Relatives told 'no survivors' by text message

    Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government incurred the wrath of many relatives when, 16 days after the disappearance, victims' family members received a text message telling them that the plane was believed to be lost in the southern Indian Ocean "and that none of those on board survived."
    The airline defended its approach, saying it was keen to make sure that the families heard the news before it was shared with the rest of the world by the Malaysian Prime Minister.
    But relatives said a text message was no way to convey such terrible news.
    Then, within days -- after family members had angrily blasted the conclusion as premature and lacking hard evidence -- acting Minister of Transport Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters that he had not entirely given up hope of finding survivors.
    "Even hoping against hope, no matter how remote, of course, we are praying and we will continue our search for the possible survivors," he said.

    Error over last words from cockpit

    People's trust was also undermined by other inconsistencies in what the government said.
    On March 17, Malaysian authorities publicly confirmed the final words from the cockpit as "All right, good night."
    The innocuous bit of radio banter became yet another headache for investigators when, after days of prodding from reporters and family members, they released a transcript showing the final words were actually, "Good night Malaysian three seven zero."
    It's not that the new language was suspect -- it's not. It's that Malaysian officials got the original wording wrong, let it stand for nearly two weeks, and then -- after saying they wouldn't release the transcript because of its role in the investigation -- suddenly reversed course.
    Officials also wavered over whether the words were spoken by co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid or pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah, before finally saying it was the latter.

    Doubts over evidence, transparency

    From the beginning, the families of those missing complained of a lack of information and transparency from the Malaysian government and Malaysia Airlines.
    Early briefings were chaotic, leading some to question who was in charge. Angry relatives accused authorities of deliberate search delays and coverups.
    In the first hours after the plane disappeared from radar screens, not long after it left Kuala Lumpur's international airport, the Malaysian government acknowledged that it had no idea where it had gone.
    Relatives slammed the airline's updates as infrequent and its support as inadequate, including an offer of $5,000 immediate financial assistance to each family member.