The mystery over MH370 and the grief of relatives of victims is giving way to bargaining over the amount of compensation.
Not for the first time in the last 11 months, relatives are angry and frustrated over the way Malaysian authorities have handled the disappearance of a $100 million state-of-the-art plane, and 239 passengers and crew on March 8, last year.
Now the airline has declared the event an accident and that all of the missing, including six Australians, are dead.
But that has not stopped the anger.
“We are the next of kin,” said Jacquita Gonzales, wife of Patrick Gomes, one of 13 cockpit and cabin crew who flew out of Kuala Lumpur on a steamy evening for what what was meant to be a short flight to the Chinese capital, Bejing.
She was angry about the manner in which next of kin learned of a dramatic reshaping of the story — that Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was now an officially designated accident.
But instead of first informing the Gomes family and other relatives who suspected a big announcement, officials, who were likely accustomed to edicts and authoritarian ways, bypassed them and made a statement to the notoriously compliant local media.
“Shouldn’t we know first before they go and tell the nation?” Ms Gonzales asked.
The answer was painfully obvious.
It was evidence that Malaysia’s elite family leadership cadre of uncles and nephews, who owe their positions less to ability and more to the good fortunes of high birth, still has a tin ear for the public mood.
They also appear to lack any kind of clue on how to soothe the rage of ordinary citizens they have spent almost a year upsetting time and again.
Relatives’ frustrations began day after disappearance
Relatives of the MH370 passengers and crew can trace the origins of their frustrations back to the beginning of the crisis on March 9.
Early that Sunday, an air controller noticed that an aircraft of the state carrier was not where it ought to be.
That awakening was followed by an inexplicable lack of curiosity by those expected to be vigilant to threats from the sky — the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
No-one in the Malaysian air defence network seemed bothered that a big plane was missing and needed to be found and that a radar had detected an aircraft of unknown origin streaking across the peninsula.
No-one thought to wake the bosses.
Lately the offence has been of a different kind — a staggering lack of compassion and common decency by the team of Malaysia Airlines liaison staffers meant to stay in constant contact with the grief-ridden relatives of those onboard.
One Australian with a relative on the plane described it this way: “They stopped making regular calls, and made me feel like I was a burden.”
“Then, at a meeting, one MAS guy finally lost it, and demanded to know why I couldn’t just accept that they are all dead,” she said.
Her voice revealed the boiling frustration of someone sick of fake smiles and empty phrases of condolence from PR officials in slick suits.
The hallmark was the deployment of the American-esque police phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss”, when they encountered a relative of a murder victim.
It seems self-evident, but PR handlers who yell and sniff at grieving widows should not work in public affairs, especially for an airline that has just killed hundreds of fare-paying customers.
Now there was a consensus view to lend some credibility to Malaysia’s initial approach to the disaster.
In unison, the governments of Australia, China and Malaysia believed now was the time to declare the disappearance of MH370 almost a year ago as “an accident” and all 239 passengers and crew officially dead.
Two thirds of the passengers were Chinese nationals, so the real focus of the Malaysian regime was ensuring the folks in Beijing were happy.
A year ago, the Chinese government at the highest level was expressing grave unhappiness about the botched search.
Beijing then sent uninvited teams of experts on search operations to Kuala Lumpur to assist.
It was an offer too heavy with geopolitical menace to refuse.
Declaration ‘designed to appease China’
It is thought the Malaysians decided to categorise the disappearance an accident to give closure on the waiting and hoping game among the Chinese.
Politically, Kuala Lumpur had been under extreme pressure to make amends to the giant power to the north.
The initial search last year was off Vietnam, even after the Malaysians knew the plane had tracked the other way — west.
After the latest announcement, Chinese premier Li Keqiang went into “show me the money” mode by reminding Malaysia what he expected now.
Media player: “Space” to play, “M” to mute, “left” and “right” to seek.
“We hope the Malaysian side act on their commitments, fulfil its obligation of investigation, compensation and comforting of the families,” he said.
The view from inside Malaysia Airlines seems to be that labelling the mystery “accidental” will motivate families to finalise insurance claims that could total $300 million.
So far the carrier had offered relatives interim payouts of $50,000, but only seven families had taken up the offer, it said.
Officials, who wanted to remain anonymous, said relatives who had not taken up the offer, see the money as obliging them to accept Malaysia Airlines’ verdict on the plane — that it crashed at sea.
Under the Montreal Convention on air disasters, the airline must pay at least $176,000 for each passenger on board, but relatives who lost high income earners are set to sue for much more.
Australian lawyer says dealings with airline ‘cordial’
Joseph Wheeler, from Shine Lawyers in Brisbane, represents some of the six Australians on the aircraft.
For him, the dealings with the airline had been cordial.
“At least from my opinion in dealings with the airline and its lawyers, they’ve always been, to their credit, willing and able to talk about compensation and negotiate what needed to be negotiated,” he said.
His legal opinion was that declaring the mystery an “accident” had no bearing on the insurance matter. Politics was at play.
“This was very much a governmental message, perhaps calculated to minimise the damage and to try to mitigate the ongoing suffering of those Chinese people in particular who are holding onto a shred of hope,” he said.
For the Malaysian government, this “accident” declaration was about the national interest, drawing a line under the tragedy and blunders to protect the prize of a state-owned carrier.
Malaysia’s rulers want the national carrier’s business and reputation restored.
A year ago, the Malaysian government was a small stakeholder. Now it is a majority investor in the airline, providing state money to keep MAS from going under as it faced a bleak year of payouts, insurance cost blowouts and hull replacements.
The total figure would hit half a billion dollars, experts said, and there was not even a plane wreck to shed light on on why and how MH370’s journey ended.
If Qantas faced these misfortunes, perhaps Australia would act this way too.