(Petaling Jaya, Wednesday): The Parliamentary Secretary to the Transport Ministry, Datuk Chor Chee Heung gave a wishy-washy reply in Parliament yesterday when I raised the issue of British mass media reports alleging that a MAS Boeing 747 had flown "on empty" over London a fortnight ago and that there had been ten such similar cases in the past.
Chor said that initial investigations by the Transport Ministry indicated that the British aviation authorities were satisfied with our aircraft operations, but he specifically qualified his answer by excluding the particular incident a fortnight ago where a MAS jumbo was alleged to have flown "on empty" over London a fortnight ago and for which the Ministry was seeking for more information.
During my speech in Parliament on the Civil Aviation (Amendment) Bill 1999 yesterday, I had said that MAS should take legal action against the British mass media like the Sunday Times of London, Daily Mail, London Times and Flight International for the most serious allegation that MAS was sacrificing the safety of its passengers as well as the host cities soley for profit considerations of cost-cutting, if they are baseless and untrue.
I warned that unless the Ministry of Transport as well as MAS take strong and satisfactory action to deny these allegations, the flying public including Malaysians will avoid using MAS.
It is most regrettable that there was no indication from Chor Chee Heung yesterday whether MAS was actively initiating legal proceedings to protect not only the good name of the Malaysian national carrier but also the country’s international reputation for trustworthiness and reliability.
MAS also does not seem to outraged by the allegation and all that its chairman, Tajudin Ramli had said on Monday was that MAS would prove its fuel policy was consistent with Malaysian, British and US aviation regulations - which is quite atypical of Tajuddin who had been quite trigger-happy as far as threatening legal action is concerned.
Tajuddin claimed that MAS records for the last six months showed that the average fuel uplift at departure per flight to London from Kuala Lumpur is approximately 160 tonnes, while the average fuel upon landing is 9.7 tonnes per aircraft.
As I said in Parliament yesterday, the important question is not the "average fuel upon landing" in the past six months, but the lowest fuel levels upon landing in the past six months, whether a fortnight ago the MAS jumbo had landed with just over three tons of fuel when British aviation rules say 747s must have at least 4.5 tons on board when they land and British Airways (BA) operates on a margin of nine tons.
In Parliament yesterday, I also read out the report on the allegation against MAS which was first submitted to the organisation called the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme (Chirp), a UK government-funded organisaion set up to encourage whistleblowers who want to report safety breaches in the aviation industry.
The report to Chirp said that on arrival at the London airport, the MAS jumbo was originally given a particular parking stand.
"However, on taxi in the aircraft went to a stand closer to the taxiway cutting its taxi time down. [At the time of morning there was no reason for a stand change on this day at such short notice, as the stands are not fully utilised).
"On entering the flight deck the EICAS (Electronic Systems Display) indications showed an arrival fuel contents figure of only 3400kgs. Two of the four main fuel tanks were indicating empty and showing amber quantity warning lights. The remaining fuel was located in the other two main tanks. A verbal report from the crew claimed that the fuel on landing had been 4,000kgs. The fuel levels were too low for hydraulics maintenance checks to be carried out.
‘If a go-around had been called for, the crew would not have been able to put the aircraft into the correct configuration of tank-to-engine feed due to two of the tanks being empty. Also if a go-around had been required, would sufficient fuel have been available for a diversion to another airport?
"I understand that a typical minimum requirement on landing, world-wide, is at least 5,000kgs for this type of aircraft.
"This was not a one-off incident…Further investigation of this report revealed at least 10 other recent instances in which low arrival fuel states had been recorded by the handling agency. The handling agency had reported these occurrences to the operator without any change in the operation being apparent."
There has since been more British mass media reports against MAS in the same vein.
The Times of London on Monday, referring to the same allegation, said that the aircraft,
"was flying the 14-hour-plus route from Kuala Lumpur/Singapore, in which carriers encounter strong head-winds. They compensate by filling up to the gunnels, even if it means leaving freight behind. But this time the aircraft - understood to be one of Malaysia Airline System's fleet - appears not to have done so.
"In the incident in question the jumbo was so low on fuel that a sudden change in aircraft attitude, with the nose pitching up sharply, could have cut off fuel to the engines. All totally out of order, of course. On landing, aircraft are expected to have enough fuel to enable them to ‘hold’ for 45 minutes, plus enough to allow them to divert to another airport. And this was not an isolated incident: ten others have been reported."
The latest issue of Flight International (issue May 12, 1999), which not only carried a report about the UK Department of Environment, Transport and Regions (DETR) investigating serious safety breaches involving Malaysia Airlines' (MAS) operations into London Heathrow "that on several occasions MAS has landed Boeing 747-400s at the airport with so little fuel that a need to go around would have placed the aircraft in danger of a multiple-engine flame-out", but also an editorial entitled "Whistleblowing" which said among other things:
"When an airline makes a mistake affecting safety, there are normally others in the industry who know it has taken place, but they say nothing. If the error was unintentional and appears to be a one-off, the reaction of industry peers is usually: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
"But, if the same airline keeps making the same mistake - like regularly
arriving at an airport with dangerously low fuel - it starts to look like
a flagrant disregard for rules and procedures. What do the airline's peers
do then? Often, in practice, they continue to say nothing to the authorities,
even when the situation is serious.
"If the organisation which knows about a repeated safety shortcoming happens also to be a supplier of goods or services to the miscreant carrier, the situation contains even more dilemmas. The contract may be valuable, and the engineer or supplier confronted with the repeated fault feels divided between his duty to report it and fear for his contract if they blow the whistle.
"If the supplier reacts, the first report is normally made to the airline, to bring the situation to its attention. But what if the report has no effect? Such a state of affairs arose recently at London Heathrow Airport.
"Fortunately, in the UK and some other countries, there is a safe haven for those who feel they must report a dangerous situation but want their identities kept secret. The system, in the UK's case, is the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme (CHIRP).
"The existence of CHIRP ensured that a serious risk to many hundreds of lives came to light before an accident occurred. The original report was de-identified in the CHIRP system, and then passed to the UK authorities, who contacted the government departments in the country where the airline was registered.
"Why was the airline allowed to arrive at Heathrow with dangerously low fuel about a dozen times before someone in the industry blew the whistle?
"The potential for a horrific accident if the aircraft was forced
around again ought to have been enough motivation for those who knew about it to file a report. Perhaps the onus should be on suppliers themselves to report the incidents to the relevant authorities, rather than leaving it to individual employees.
"The truth is that nobody loves whistleblowers, and this aversion seems to span all cultures. Those who feel that they have a duty to report safety shortcomings have to make the lonely decision on whether the sole outcome of their action will be loss of their job or their contract, while the fault goes uncorrected. The oft-quoted cliché that it is pointless and unfair to ‘shoot the messenger’ has a hollow ring for those laden with the message. The world shoots messengers all the time.
"So, using the Heathrow low arrival-fuel case as a generic example,
what was the essential problem? It is not clear in detail yet, but either
messages sent to the airline were not heeded, or messages were held back
until the situation became serious.
"The fact that it took a fully confidential reporting system to bring the
matter to light is the ultimate testimony to the fact that there were no
effective communication links between the two parties."
The May 11, 1999 edition of Aviation Week Online carried this item:
"Flying 'Light' Reported
"Malaysia Airlines pilots for more than two years have been under orders to carry minimal fuel when weather conditions are favorable to save on costs, a senior MAS flight operations official told The DAILY in Kuala Lumpur. This was after a report to authorities that a MAS 747-400 landed in London Heathrow Airport two weeks ago with fuel reserves below the safety minimum of 4.5 tons. -Aviation Daily"
The Ministry of Transport should be aware that all eyes of the world are watching how Malaysia will be handling this serious allegation against MAS - whether the Malaysian government will conduct an independent investigation and own up to violations of minimum air safety measures and take corrective measures or whether it will seek to deny what is undeniable, gravely damaging Malaysia’s international reputation for reliability and trustworthiness.
This is why the minimum the MAS should do, if the allegations are baseless and untrue, is to institute legal actions against the British newspapers and publications for publishing these allegations and for the truth to be tested out in the British courts of law.