In an inteview with the Sydney Morning Herald, aviation industry veteran Tim Clark expresses doubt about much of the investigation.
The full transcript of German aviation journalist Andreas Spaeth’s interview with Emirates chief Sir Tim Clark.
It’s many months later and we know nothing about MH370, having disappeared on March 8, 2014. What can be done?
TIM CLARK: Malaysia Airlines 370 remains one of the great aviation mysteries. Personally I have the concern that we will treat it like that and move on, and it will go onto National Geographic as one of aviation’s great mysteries. We mustn’t allow this to happen. This aeroplane has disappeared without trace. The public and the industry are questioning the lack of information and the cold hard logic of the disappearance of this and the factors that led to its disappearance. The tracking of the aircraft, its routing, its altitude oscillations, these were all measurable and explainable in my view. But we seem to have allowed it to go into this black hole of ‘it could be one of aviation’s great mysteries’. It can’t be left like that, never. We must know what caused that aeroplane to disappear.
- Sign up for Aliran's free daily email updates or weekly newsletters or both
- Make a one-off donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB a/c 8004240948
- Make a pledge or schedule an auto donation to Aliran every month or every quarter
- Become an Aliran member
What do you think happened?
CLARK: My own view is that probably control was taken of that aeroplane, the events that happened during the course of its tracked flight will be anybody’s guess of who did what and when. I think we need to know who was on this aeroplane in the detail that obviously some people do know, we need to know what was in the hold of the aeroplane, in the detail we need to know, in a transparent manner. And we need to continue to press all those stake holders, that were and are involved in the analysis, in the assessment of what happened, for more information. Because heading an airline that operates the largest number of 777s in the world, I have a responsibility of knowing exactly what went on. I do not subscribe to the view that the aircraft, which is one of the most advanced in the world, has the most advanced avionic and communication platforms, needs to be improved so that we can introduce some kind of additional tracking system for an aeroplane that should never have been allowed to enter into a non-trackable situation.
What do you mean by that?
CLARK: The transponders are under the control of the flight deck. These are tracking devices, aircraft identifiers, that work in the secondary radar regime. If you turn off that transponder in a secondary radar regime, it causes a disappearance of that particular aeroplane from the radar screen. That should never be allowed to happen. All secondary and primary radar should be the same. Irrespective of when the pilot decides to disable the transponder, the aircraft should be able to be tracked. So the notion by the Malaysians that the disappearance from the secondary radar and then the ability of the military to use primary radar to track the aeroplane and identify it as ‘friendly’ – I don’t know how they did that – is something we need to look at very carefully.
What about other ways of monitoring?
CLARK: The other means of constantly monitoring the process of the track of an aircraft is the Aircraft Communication and Reporting System, ACARS. That is designed primarily for the companies to monitor what the aeroplanes are doing, we use it for a number of things, but primarily to monitor the aircraft systems and engine performance. So we track from the ground, as we do at Emirates, every single aircraft and every component of the aircraft and engine of the aircraft at any point of the planet, and very often we are able to track faults in the systems before the pilots do. It’s that good and it’s that real time.
How was it possible to disable that?
CLARK: Disabling it is no simple thing, and our pilots are not trained to disable ACARS. There are ways to enter the system through the multiple menu levels to get through and disable, but to completely disable also requires you to go down below the main deck into the avionics bay. That requires you to leave the flight deck and go down through a trap door in the floor to do that. But somehow this thing was disabled, so much so that the ground tracking capability was eliminated.
What should be the consequence?
CLARK: We must find systems to allow ACARS to continue uninterrupted, irrespective of who is controlling the aircraft. So that is not something somebody can do. If you have that, with the satellite constellations that we have today even in the Southern Ocean, we still have the capability of monitoring. So you don’t have to introduce additional tracking systems. We are told we are saying that because we don’t want to spend money. I have no problem spending and Emirates is one of the first to step out and ensure that safety is never compromised. But I have to be persuaded that adding additional tracking systems on top of what we already have is really worthwhile.
So what should be done then?
My recommendation to the aircraft manufacturer group is that they find a way to make disabling of the ACARS system impossible by the flight deck. And the transponder as well – I’m still struggling to find why a pilot should be able to put the transponder into standby or off. In my view, that should not be an option. Thirdly, the air traffic control systems should not have a situation where a non-transponder aircraft without its squawk identifier should not be allowed to turn off and still not be able to track it. This is absolute stuff of nonsense. Radar is radar, it will pick up metal objects flying at the speed of the size of a 777 without any difficulty. Who took the decision to say: ‘If a transponder is off, we can’t track it in a secondary radar regime’? Which apparently most air traffic control systems are in. We must look at that as well. This aircraft in my opinion was under control, probably until the very end.
But why would they fly down five hours straight towards Antarctica?
If they did! I am saying that every single element of the ‘facts’ of this particular incident must be challenged and examined in full transparency, exhausted to the point that there is no other way that we can think of this other than a complete mystery. We are nowhere near that, there is plenty of information out there, which we need to be far more forthright, transparent and candid about. All the entities involved like the NTSB, the Malaysians, the Australians, Boeing itself, whatever. They all know that people like me, and I hope the Malaysians are in this boat, too, will not allow this to go into that box of oblivion. Every single second of that flight needs to be examined. From the point on its heading in a north-easterly direction where it ‘disappeared’ off the screen and made a conscious left turn to go almost due West in controlled flight. There were apparently some oscillations in altitude from 41.000 to 27.000 feet, then the notion that it turned between existing waypoints on a north-easterly, then a north-westerly, then a south-westerly heading, where it theoretically then ended up in the Southern Ocean. For which they couldn’t find a trace in 1.7 million square miles of search, nothing, they say.
So you nurture doubts that it actually happened as is said?
When you press questions on this, I sense a degree of belligerence, the more belligerent people become, the more worried I become. They have used AF447 as an example, where it was two years to track the aircraft, but very shortly after the incident they found the fin, floating. So we knew that the aircraft had gone in. And yes, there were all sorts of oceanographic issues with the currents and it took us two years to find. But in this case, there wasn’t a seat cushion, and our experience tells us that in water incidents, where the aircraft has gone down, there is always something. We have not seen a single thing that suggests categorically that this aircraft is where they say it is, nothing. Apart from this ‘handshake’, which calls my electronic engineers to start thinking ‘what is all this about?’.
What is their conclusion?
CLARK: They say, even though they disabled satellite communication and the ACARS, it is actually not disabled, it is still powered up and sends out weak signals that hunt, like you would do with a mobile phone. And therefore it is traceable. Well, I question this ‘handshake’ as well. In the Southern Ocean, with a very weak signal, which is intermittent, and they are a multitude of other aircraft in the same area, I’m not sure about that. Those are the things that need to be challenged. First of all let’s establish what actually happened. If the industry then believes there is a case to put extra tracking devices on board, we can look at it. But don’t walk down a blind alley. Many people, including at IATA, are going down this path. I don’t agree with it.
At which point in the presumed flight path do your doubts start?
CLARK: There hasn’t been one overwater incident in the history of civil aviation, apart form Amelia Earhart in 1939, that has not been at least five or ten percent trackable. This has disappeared. So for me that raises a degree of suspicion, and I’m totally dissatisfied with what is been coming out of all of this.
Who can change that?
CLARK: I’m not in a position to do it, I’m essentially an airline manager. But I will continue to ask the questions and will make a nuisance of myself, when others would like to bury it, and we have an obligation to the passengers and crew of MH 370 and their families, whose deep distress you see every day. We have an obligation not to brush this under the carpet, but to sort it out and do better than we have done.
So the search efforts undertaken so far were not good enough?
CLARK: They will start the search now again in the Southern Ocean, but look at what they had there: The Russians, the Chinese, the British, the Australians, the Malaysians. They had so many aircraft there that at one point, they had to bring in a separate aircraft to control their movements, so they didn’t bump into each other. And still, nothing. Now, months later, they are gonna start again, but they couldn’t find anything with all these entities before. This is very strange.
What is your gut feeling, will we at some point know more about what actually happened?
I think we will know more if there is full transparency of everything that everybody knows. I do not believe that the information held by some is on the table. Who actually disabled ACARS, who knew how to do it? If you eliminate the pilot on a suicide mission, I’m sure you could have put the aircraft in the South China Sea, rather than fly it for seven hours. So if he was on a suicide mission, he would have done it then. Who then took control of the aircraft? Who then knew how to disable ACARS and turn the transponder off? That is a huge challenge.
Can you understand that there is still so much disbelief everywhere how this could have ever happened in this time and age?
CLARK: Therein lies this huge question mark in my mind. I know this did not have to happen, there is technology to track these aircraft and everybody will say that, Boeing or Airbus. That is where the conundrum is of mystery, that is where we must be more forthright and candid as to what went on, it is not good enough for the Malaysian military to say: “On a prime radar we identified it as ‘friendly'”.
The role of the Malaysian military appears to be particularly murky.
CLARK: This is a very busy part of Southeast Asia, the notion that we should not be able to identify if it is friend or foe, or we can on primary radar and do nothing about it, is bizarre. What would have happened if the aircraft would have turned back to fly into the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur? But we identified it as “friendly”? Friendly with intent, or friendly without intent? But what was done? These are the questions that need to be asked of the people and the entities that were involved in all of this. Full transparency of that will help us to find out what went on.
There are million-dollar rewards offered now by interested parties to help solve both cases, MH 370 and also MH 17. Will that help?
MH 17’s cause is completely different, but an equally tragic incident which the industry needed to respond to. The notion of a reward is something new to us. There is criminal culpability in what happened in my view. The aircraft was clearly taken down by ordnance, and even if people are shy to say it – it was taken down by a missile. They talk about multiple penetration of high velocity – well hello, that’s not likely to be a goose, is it? So this aircraft was shot down. Others are saying it was by accident, I don’t believe that. I believe the aircraft was taken down in the full knowledge of what it was.
Why, what purpose would that serve for anybody?
CLARK: Eventually, those responsible for it will be asked that. Hopefully in the courts. I can’t speak for them. All I do know is the complexity of the equipment that was used: The need for the equipment to track what they were actually going to take down. Identify it and set it up to feed the information from the control vehicle into the missile, feed the data, so that the missile could log on. This wasn’t a heat-seeking missile. It was a missile that can go up to 79,000 feet. So there was a risk up to 79,000 feet, we don’t fly up there, it could have almost taken a satellite down. We need to ask those questions and we need to have answers. Clearly there are players like the Dutch who say this was a criminal action and should be treated accordingly under the normal courts of international justice. It was a criminal act, I would call it premeditated mass murder. I hope that in time those responsible will be brought to book.
Why were this and other aircraft flying this route at all?
CLARK: Concerning the route and altitude it was flying, back in July, I was distinctly troubled by what had happened on top of Malaysia flight 370. We could have done better as an industry in bringing together the information that was allowed to float around among us. I was very pleased that my public criticism of IATA and ICAO was picked up and a security conference set up for February, which is definitely a step in the right direction. I have spoken to many CEOs in my peer group, all competitors, who agree that we need to improve what we do.
What would that be?
CLARK: It is all very well to say that air space is controlled by the country that we fly over and that it is up to them what to do. But when a country is split in half by a civil war, things change altogether. As an airline group we should have said ‘Look, are we sure that the Ukrainian government has control of the air space in which we fly over, are we sure that we cannot be attacked?’. Even though they say it’s clear above a certain flight level. And if that is the case, then we must be absolutely sure that we do not put our passengers, crew and aircraft at risk.
Did Emirates avoid eastern Ukrainian air space before MH 17 and if so, why was that?
CLARK: Very few, if any, of our flights went through. We were serving Kiev, which we stopped almost immediately. And the routing to Kiev was a southerly routing over the Black Sea and then going north into Kiev. So we avoided this airspace.
Did you as Emirates have any information of potential danger at the time of MH 17?
CLARK: No, I had no idea, personally, that there was this kind of ordnance being moved into the east of the country. And had I known that, I would have most definitely said that I weren’t happy about that. And we know that some did know and I’m not blaming them, it is very difficult. The sensitivities of passing on information supply by the intelligence apparatuses in various countries is, by nature, secret.
How can that be overcome?
CLARK: What I am trying to crack is that ability for the airline community to take this information, irrespective of source, how secret it may be, and not question where it came from. But rather say, ‘this is likely to be the case, please help us so we can make that decisions’. And I think out of this, working groups in IATA and ICAO will come along. The world was truly and utterly shocked by this, all governments were deeply affected by it. It was a game changer in my view, it had to be dealt with on that basis. They all needed to do better.
Because the world doesn’t get more peaceful at the moment.
CLARK: Unfortunately, the world today is full of conflict zones. We as an airline community have sometimes little choice but to travel through these conflict zones, or completely avoid them, just not fly. Now we stopped flying to Erbil, to Damascus, to Tripoli, just recently to Sana’a, we had a question mark over Peshawar in Pakistan. These are things we deal with as management all the time. The more information I get, the easier it makes the job for me. We took the decision not to fly over Iraq after all this and people say: ‘Did you know something?’. I didn’t know anything, it was in my view on the balance of risk.
Why did the airlines themselves had to decide if and where to fly, or not at all?
CLARK: In fairness, airlines that have a supervisory authority like the FAA in the US or our Department of Civil Aviation in the UAE, they tell us where to fly or not to fly. It’s not all about the airlines taking their decisions, most of the time there is a dialogue between the regulator and everybody else. But sometimes, the airlines know more than the regulators. If the regulators of other countries had access to what that particular regulator knows about that particular bit of air space, and we share it in a fairly sanitised manner, so they didn’t disclose, I’m sure we’ll be far better off.
If you were at the helm of Malaysia Airlines today, what would you do?
CLARK: Very difficult one, none of us has been in this business before of having to deal with two tragedies within a few months of each other. Malaysia Airlines carries the brand of Malaysia. It is their ambassador for trade, very difficult to deal with the stigma. A fresh look at what they do, a revisiting of their business model, possibly a rebranding.
Can this brand survive at all?
CLARK: In the end we’ll move on, the airline has to continue to trade. For it to disappear because it had these two frightful incidents, I think all of us in the industry would say this shouldn’t be allowed to happen. We need to find a way to help these guys sort out their problems. With that kind of brand damage, that occurred to them, it’s extraordinary difficult. In the end, I’m sure they are going through a major re-think, soul searching of what they have to do, they have to keep the airline going, it’s so important for what they are. They find a way to do it and people will return to it. So time will tell, but it’s not easy. They will try to rebrand it, not just the title, but its whole ethos and DNA, they’ll gonna have to try persuade the public that these were accidents beyond their control, and move on from that, that they were so unlucky to be subjected to that.
The cruise ship industry felt a big negative impact after the accident of the “Costa Concordia” in 2012. Aviation did not suffer the same way after these two extraordinary accidents this year. Why is it more resilient?
CLARK: Aviation plays a more critical role in what it does than perhaps the cruise industry. The cruise industry is there purely for leisure, and it’s a great industry. But it does not glue the planet. Air travel does, the aviation industry is the physical glue of what goes on. Without it, the world would come to a rapid halt, as we’ve seen during the volcanic ash situation.