TIME Aviation

Here’s What That Piece of Debris Tells Us (And Doesn’t) About the Fate of MH370

Further analysis could provide valuable clues, but there's still a long way to go

Nearly 17 months after it seemingly vanished off the face of the earth, the first tangible piece of evidence on the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has finally emerged.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced just after midnight on Thursday that the debris found last week on a beach in Réunion, a small island and French territory in the Indian Ocean, does indeed belong to MH370.

A French prosecutor in Toulouse, where the debris (a part of the aircraft wing known as a flaperon) is currently being analyzed was slightly more cautious, saying there were “strong indications” that this was true but further tests are required before it can be confirmed.

The deputy prime minister of Australia, the country spearheading the extensive yearlong search for the Beijing-bound aircraft that went missing on March 8, 2014, was equally noncommittal.

“The French-led investigation team is continuing to finalize its considerations of the wreckage and we will await further detail from them,” Warren Truss said in a statement, but added that there was a “high probability” that the flaperon comes from MH370.

Malaysia Airlines released a statement of its own, calling the finding a “major breakthrough” in determining the aircraft’s fate. “We expect and hope that there would be more objects to be found which would be able to help resolve this mystery,” the national carrier said.

The news did little to pacify the relatives of those who allegedly perished in the accident, however, with many continuing to express skepticism and a lack of trust in the investigators.

Here is what we can (and cannot) ascertain from Thursday’s developments:

  1. What we know now that we didn’t know before.

The fact that the debris was found in the Indian Ocean, where authorities have been trying to narrow the search for months, shows that the current investigation is focusing in the right area — albeit still a very large one. “It’s a very small needle in a very big haystack,” David Newbery, a Hong Kong-based flight captain and accredited aircraft investigator, tells TIME. However, Newbery says closer examination of the flaperon could reveal details like the speed and angle of impact with the water, as well as whether the airplane remained intact.

“If they examine the failure points of the structure they may be able to get some idea of the force of the impact which broke it off,” he says, “It depends on how quickly the airplane hit the sea and at what speed, whether or not the aircraft broke up completely on hitting the sea or whether it was mainly intact when it sank.”

He does add that the fact that only one piece of debris has been found may be an indication that the Boeing 777 remained intact after hitting the water.

John Page, a senior lecturer and aircraft design expert from the University of New South Wales, says the flaperon could confirm what he says is the most plausible theory he’s heard about the aircraft’s disappearance.

“If it is where we think it is, then it appears to have been flying a reciprocal course than the one it should’ve been on — the opposite direction, in other words,” he told TIME in an interview, adding that a possible scenario is that the crew, sensing trouble, plugged in the coordinates to reverse the flight path but then lost all communication. “So one possibility is they tried to turn back, not realizing that before they got to the next waypoint when they had to turn again they wouldn’t be available,” he said.

Another significant outcome of finding the debris, along with clues about what happened to the aircraft, is definitive proof of what didn’t.

“I think what it does do is get rid of all the conspiracy theories about the airplane landing here, there and everywhere,” says Newbery, while Paige adds that “extreme ideas like flying saucers” only serve to “make noise on what’s happening.”

One major indication of MH370’s whereabouts could come from the barnacles found clinging to the piece of debris. The marine animals, which come from the same crustacean family as crabs and lobsters, could tell researchers where the flaperon has been.

“If marine scientists can really get their hands on them and look at the species distribution patterns, then they can possibly figure out roughly where the barnacle got onto that part of the aircraft,” says Qian Pei-Yuan, who heads the Division of Life Sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Qian says the barnacles found on the debris appear to belong to a genus known as “gooseneck barnacles,” the study of which could help pinpoint the aircraft’s location by determining how fast the aquatic creatures grow and where they reside.

“The first thing we need to know is exactly which species [of gooseneck barnacle] they are,” he says. “You can then figure out how fast they can grow, what the temperature of the sea is, when the barnacle actually got on [to the flaperon], and then you can extrapolate how long they have been there.”

  1. What we still don’t know.

Although the barnacles could provide hints as to how an aircraft that supposedly went down near the western coast of Australia ended up on Réunion, just off the coast of Madagascar, the fact that it was found there doesn’t really narrow the search area to a great extent.

“If you’re trying to figure out based on the ocean currents, I don’t believe they can narrow down the area that much because the ocean currents in the Indian Ocean are quite complicated,” Qian says. “There’s a current from the northern part of India to the equator regions, from Malaysia going to the west, then from the equator region going to the east. You can’t tell.”

The duration that the aircraft (and this particular piece of debris) has been in the ocean makes it all the more difficult to pinpoint its location, as does the lack of other debris.

“A year is a long time to be floating, if it was only a couple of weeks they could probably reasonably accurately predict where it came from,” says Newbery, the aircraft accident expert, adding that the developments on Réunion will most likely not refine the search any more than it already has been. “Unfortunately, though I know this piece of debris gives some certainty about the search, I’m not convinced that it’s going to help the investigators terribly much in terms of finding out what happened.”

  1. What comes next.

Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC), cited by the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Truss, said in its statement that authorities will persist with “thorough and methodical search efforts” in the existing search area.

“The indications are that it’s probably not going to increase with any great degree the likelihood of finding the wreckage any earlier than before,” said Ron Bartsch, chairman of international aviation safety consultancy firm AvLaw Consulting.

Malaysian authorities, along with the airline, have said that they will do everything in their power to bring an elusive sense of closure to those affected by the disaster.

Although he says that there are a “myriad of legal issues yet to be resolved” before compensation for the victims’ families can be finalized, Bartsch is of the opinion that the stray flaperon being analyzed in Toulouse gives a much-needed boost to the search efforts.

“I think the significance of the discovery of the wreckage should not be underestimated,” he said. “It is the first positive confirmation of objective evidence that we know that the aircraft did disappear in the search, so I believe that this should give search authorities and governments alike the motivation to not only continue their search efforts but to increase them.”

TIME Aviation

Chinese Families Remain Suspicious Despite ‘Confirmation’ MH370 Crashed in the Ocean

"I have lost my faith in the investigators”

A whole 515 days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from the skies en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed early Thursday that a barnacle-encrusted fragment of wing that had washed up last week on the remote Indian Ocean island of Réunion, a French territory, was indeed from the doomed flight. “It is with a very heavy heart,” Najib told a press conference organized around midnight in Malaysia, “that I must tell you that an international team of experts has conclusively confirmed that the aircraft debris…is indeed MH370.”

In France, where aeronautical experts near Toulouse were examining the flaperon, as the chunk of the wing spotted on the pebble beach is called, prosecutor Serge Mackowiak used less definitive language, instead saying that there were “very strong indications” that the Boeing 777 chunk was from MH370. (No other Boeing 777s have been reported missing in the Indian Ocean area.)

Najib, whose government has been criticized for fumbling the investigation into the jetliner’s disappearance, said the confirmation of the flaperon’s origins “will at least bring certainty to the families and loved ones of the 239 people onboard MH370,” most of whom were Chinese. The Malaysian leader spoke of the “unspeakable” nature and “torment” of their loss.

But several families of Chinese passengers felt no certainty in Thursday’s announcement — and even less a sense of closure. “I don’t care if they found the wreckage, and I don’t care where the plane is,” says Li Huiyun, whose husband was on the jet. “If they cannot find the bodies and know what happened to our relatives, it’s meaningless.”

Since the March 8, 2014, disappearance, family members have endured ham-fisted coddling from Malaysian authorities. After initial support from the Chinese government, relatives of those on MH370 endured repression when they veered outside of the officially sanctioned parameters of grief. Relatives have been physically harassed by Beijing authorities, one so badly she ended up in the hospital. Others have been detained, some accused of breaking Chinese rules against unapproved public gatherings.

With no sense of what exactly happened, despite search efforts by 26 nations, certain family members have expressed skepticism in the commonly accepted explanation that the plane went down somewhere over the southern Indian Ocean. (Australian authorities are around half-way through combing 46,000 sq. mi. of ocean floor around 1,000 miles west of Perth, and say the discovery of the wing part has not shifted their focus.) “I do not believe the plane is stranded on the sea floor as some people say,” says a woman surnamed Yuan whose husband was also on the flight. (Yuan does not want her full name used or that of the husband she married just a couple months before the plane’s disappearance.) “How can I trust [the investigators]?”

Messages in Chinese chat groups organized by family members speculated whether the plane was actually hijacked by radical Islamic terrorists who secretly landed in the wilds of Central Asia. Others blame the CIA for having somehow captured it. Wu Xia, whose husband was also one of the MH370 passengers, wonders whether some of the passengers even got on board. “I suspect they fabricated the whole thing about the wreckage being found,” she says. “Why did it take so long for them to verify the [flaperon]? I have lost my faith in the investigators.”

It took two years for investigators, working out of the same Toulouse aeronautics center where the MH370 wing part is being examined, to figure out what happened with Air France Flight 447, which plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. For the families of the MH370 victims, the wait could be even more extended — a long time to keep the faith.

—With reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing

TIME Aviation

An Expert Says Our Search Strategy Will Need Overhauling If the Réunion Debris Is From MH370

The discovery of possible MH370 debris on Réunion Island would mean that the existing search zone is wrong, a top oceanographer explains

On Friday, a group of French officials boarded a 12-hour flight to Paris from Réunion, a volcanic island and French territory in the southwest Indian Ocean. With them was a 9-ft.-by-3-ft. piece of flotsam many believe is a wing-flap from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board.

It was the unremarkable final stretch on what may turn out to be the wing-flap’s remarkable journey—if indeed it is a wing-flap, and if it turns out to have actually come from MH370. Sources in Boeing have told CNN they are ”confident” the flotsam was part of a Boeing 777, and experts have little doubt the part came from the doomed jetliner. That would mean this debris could have been drifting on ocean currents for more than 500 days for some 2,500 miles, or the equivalent to driving Route 66 from New York to Los Angeles.

Yet what is more remarkable is what more it can tell us. It could, for example, nix ongoing search efforts, which are currently focused around 1,000 miles off the coast of Perth in Western Australia. Authorities have scoured 21,000 square miles of a 23,000 square mile search zone in an operation costing well over $100,000 million, and which has involved thousand of flights, dozens of ships and several submarines. They are now poised to head south and double the search zone’s size.

On Friday, Australian deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told a press conference that he was “confident” this zone was the right one “based on continuing refinement of the satalite data.” He added: “We will continue to concentrate on the southern end of that identified area.”

However, according to Erik van Sebille, a lecturer in oceanography at Imperial College London, the flotsam’s very appearance in Réunion—if it is proven to come from MH370—would mean that searchers have been looking in the wrong place.

“If you take into account the currents in the Indian Ocean, then you can trace the flow backwards from the northern part of the search zone,” he tells TIME. “It would exclude the southern part as anything that drifts from there would go eastward into the Pacific Ocean.”

Following the discovery of the supposed debris—spotted on a pebble beach by an eagle-eyed government worker named Johnny Bègue—helicopters have been scouring Réunion, which lies around 600 mi east of Madagascar, for more. Reports of luggage fragments are currently being investigated. However, van Sebille also believes such efforts are largely misplaced, factoring in the frenzied nature of the ocean’s currents.

“The ocean currents are not like highways. They are not really simple and predictable—they are actually quite chaotic. It’s a bit like the weather,” he says. “It’s just like how San Francisco is typically used to the westerly wind, but every so often it might come the other way—it’s the same for the ocean.”

Experiments with GPS-tracked objects, released 30ft apart in the ocean, have resulted in them drifting hundreds of miles apart within just a month. So while the broad strokes of the ocean’s currents can be mapped, conclusions are typically ambiguous. By tracing the currents from Réunion back to the search zone, “our best hope is that we can perhaps pin down the region to perhaps a few hundred miles, which will still be very large,” says van Sebille.

The barnacles clinging to the wing-flap can also tell a story. Very quickly, investigators will be able to tell from their size how long the object has been in the water, meaning that even if serial numbers cannot categorically prove the object came from MH370, identifying the plane model, combined with time adrift, could remove reasonable doubt.

As there are more than 1,000 species of barnacles in the ocean, with their provenance depending on myriad environmental factors, Benny K.K. Chan, associate professor of marine biology at National Taiwan University, says that it would also be possible to lead back to a specific crash site by identifying certain varieties.

“There are some species of barnacles that have very distinct distribution, and so if you get some of these then maybe you could get some hint from where this wing-flap has drifted,” he tells TIME. “But from the pictures I can only see the lepas genus, which are common to nearly all floating objects.”

Experts are due to examine the flotsam at a laboratory in Toulouse, with conclusions expected in the next day or so. But the value of the wing-flap—again, if MH370’s wing-flap is what it actually is—increases exponentially should more debris be found, especially, and perhaps surprisingly, if it is found far from the original discovery.

“If we find some debris somewhere else on a completely different part of the Indian Ocean, then what we can do is backtrack that too and then look at the overlap,” says van Sebille. “You can then look at the overlap of all the rough areas. It’s essentially triangulation.”

TIME Aviation

What to Know About the New Malaysia Airlines Clue

The discovery is the most significant since the Boeing 777 vanished almost 17 months ago

An Australian official warned Thursday not to jump to conclusions about a barnacle-encrusted, 9-by-3-ft. piece of flotsam that washed up on the French island of Reunion — a discovery many are saying may be debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Australia’s deputy prime minister, Warren Truss, said it was premature to link the recovered chunk of metal with the jet that went missing 509 days ago. “It is too early to make that judgment,” Truss said at a news conference in Sydney. “But clearly we are treating this as a major lead and seeking to get assurance about what has been found and whether it is indeed linked to the disappearance of MH 370.”

Other officials have a “high degree of confidence” that the discovery is an aluminum-composite wing-flap from a Boeing 777, the same type of plane that vanished shortly after departing Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8, 2014. The 227 passengers and 12 crew are all presumed dead.

Now engineers from Boeing are examining the debris to confirm that it is a flaperon from a 777, and even, if possible, from MH370 specifically. “We are treating this as a major lead and seeking to get assurance about what has been found and if it is indeed liked to the disappearance of MH370,” Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said at a press conference Thursday.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Where does the investigation stand?

Initial search efforts were concentrated along the flight’s charted route over the South China Sea, but then moved to the Strait of Malacca when Thai military radar indicated the aircraft doubled back across the Malay Peninsula (conventional tracking wasn’t possible as the plane’s secondary radar had been disabled inside the cockpit).

Then, after still no trace was found, pioneering data analysis by British satellite telecom firm Inmarsat indicated that MH370 had traveled south into the Indian Ocean, probably running out of fuel roughly 1,000 miles off the western Australia city of Perth.

A total of 55,000 sq km of seafloor has been scoured in this area, but the lack of any success prompted the search zone to be doubled to 120,000 sq km in May. In addition, thousands of reconnaissance flights were launched, with the combined operation costing more than $100 million — an unprecedented figure.

And so, if confirmed, Wednesday’s discovery of a supposed wing-flap — found 2,500 miles (or the equivalent of the width of the U.S.) from the search zone — would be the first definitive piece of proof that the plane had crashed.

“Malaysia Airlines is working with the relevant authorities to confirm the matter,” the carrier said in an emailed statement. “At the moment, it would be too premature for the airline to speculate the origin of the flaperon.”

2. What’s next?

Proving categorically that the recovered piece came from a Boeing 777. Investigators from the U.S. aviation giant, as well as representatives from Malaysia Airlines, are currently trying to make that call. But should verification prove tricky in tiny Reunion, they may transport the object to specialist labs in France for further examination. (France has jurisdiction to handle evidence found on its territory, though will work with Malaysia, which heads the overall investigation because it involves its flag carrier; Australia has also offered assistance.)

Ideally, they would find a serial number. If there’s a part number that starts with “113W,” then we know it comes from a 777. (A marking “PB670” was found on the object, revealed Truss, though the significance is so far unknown.)

If the part is confirmed as coming from a 777, experts say there will be little doubt it came from MH370. “Our goal, along with the entire global aviation industry, continues to be not only to find the airplane but also to determine what happened — and why,” said Boeing in a statement Wednesday.

3. So have we been searching in the wrong place all this time?

Not at all. In the almost 17 months since the plane vanished, debris could feasibly have drifted anywhere around the globe. Certainly, the buffeting South Atlantic Gyre could have swept a flaperon from Western Australia to Reunion.

“The information that we have is consistent with the search that’s being undertaken at the present time,” Truss told reporters. “It supports the satellite data and the identification of the area in the southern Indian Ocean as the likely place where the aircraft could have entered the water.

However, if confirmed, additional searches of islands near Reunion, and the coastlines of nearby Madagascar and East Africa, could also be initiated to try to find more debris.

4. What does it tell us?

If confirmed as a piece from MH370, the most telling initial detail is the size of the debris, which experts say makes a high-velocity nose-dive crash unlikely. Larger objects of this ilk are more common from slower impacts, such as a pilot deliberately plotting a gentle descent.

“It’s an indication that this broke off in some sort of a landing or a spiral down from altitude as the plane stalled and ran out of fuel,” Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, told CNN.

But even the attached barnacles could tell an important story, given that there are over 1,000 different species throughout the oceans dependent on myriad environmental factors.

5. What’s the legal significance?

Very little. Under the Montreal Convention, litigation against an airline must take place within two years of a disaster. This is still the time frame that lawyers representing the victims’ families are working within. But Malaysia Airlines has already accepted responsibility and declared that the missing plane was “lost.”

Compensation has already been announced, although the amount could be challenged. However, as an airline has a “strict liability” to deliver passengers to a destination, the cause of the crash — pilot suicide, pilot error, hijacking, etc. — only has limited significance.

“The cause may not matter vis-à-vis the airline regarding what their duties and responsibilities are to pay compensation,” Brian Alexander, a lawyer specializing in aviation litigation for Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, which is representing 48 victims’ families, tells TIME. “And I don’t think this one finding would affect our decisionmaking regarding the timing of the filing.”

However, should more wreckage be found to indicate the disaster resulted from a mechanical fault that was not the airline’s fault, additional litigation could theoretically be brought against Boeing.

6. What about the families?

This is where the discovery could be hugely significant. Without debris, conspiracy theories have proliferated, with some suggesting an elaborate heist and that the airplane may have been stashed for reuse in a later terrorist attack, possibly in a disused Soviet-era military runway somewhere near the Caucuses. Many families have refused to give up hope until the plane has definitively been proved as crashed. That time, for better or worse, may soon be upon us.

TIME Aviation

Debris Found in Indian Ocean Could Match Missing Malaysian Jet

The part washed ashore on Wednesday off the coast of Reunion Island

American officials have a “high degree of confidence” that airline debris found on a French Island in the Indian Ocean appears to belong a Boeing 777, the same kind of aircraft as the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

A U.S. official told the Associated Press that air safety investigators identified the part based on a photo of the wreckage. The plane parts were found on Reunion Island, about 380 nautical miles off the coast of Madagascar and about 3,500 miles from where the plane disappeared over the Andaman Sea.

The official told the AP that a team of investigators, which include a Boeing air safety expert, have identified the debris as a “flaperon,” which is typically responsible for controlling the roll or bank of an aircraft. On a Boeing 777, the flaperon would be found along the trailing edge of a 777 wing.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said that his country had sent a team to the island to confirm the identity of the debris.

“Whatever wreckage found needs to be further verified before we can ever confirm that it is belonged to MH370,” he said.

A French official confirmed that French law enforcement is on the island for the investigation.

The ongoing search of the seabed is unlikely to change, according to Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan, whose agency is heading up the location effort. If the part is from the plane, it would line up with the theory that it crashed within a roughly 46,000 mile area.

Paul R. Bergman, a spokesman for Boeing, referred questions to authorities investigating the incident.

“Our goal, along with the entire global aviation industry, continues to be not only to find the airplane, but also to determine what happened – and why,” he said in a statement.

Flight 370 mysteriously disappeared on March 8, 2014 with 239 people on board and a multinational effort has been searching for it ever since.

TIME Boeing

Boeing Warns Airlines: Lithium Battery Shipments Are a Fire Hazard

USA - Atlanta: airplane Boeing B777-200LR of Delta Air Lines
ullstein bild—ullstein bild via Getty Images

Could a battery explosion have brought down MH370?

Boeing has warned all passenger airliners that including bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries in their cargo could cause fires that destroy airplanes.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Agency has also confirmed this word of caution, adding in their own statement that tests “conducted on the transport of lithium batteries has indicated that it presents a risk,” according to a report by the Associated Press.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are used in cellphones, laptops and many other electronic devices. They are also often flown in the cargo of international airlines. Now, in a guidance sent by Boeing, airlines have been urged to refrain from carrying shipments of the batteries “until safer methods of packaging and transport are established and implemented,” Boeing spokesman Doug Alder told the AP in an e-mail.

Tests conducted by the FAA over the past year have shown that inflammable gases such as hydrogen are emitted when the batteries short-circuit. They can then cause explosions when ignited, and cause fires that are hard to extinguish. After one such test, the FAA concluded that the “cargo liner is vulnerable to penetration by molten lithium.”

Observers will note that the infamous Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane that went missing last year carried a shipment of 5,400 pounds worth of lithium-ion batteries, as detailed in investigations. That plane, which still has yet to be found, was a Boeing 777 airliner carrying 293 passengers and crew members.

TIME remembrance

The World Marks the First Anniversary of the MH17 Aviation Disaster

One year on, investigations into the tragedy are still ongoing

Friday marks one year since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over conflict-torn eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

The Boeing 777 was on route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam when it crashed in pro-Russian rebel-held territory on July 17, 2014.

The Dutch Safety Board is due to release the final report into the cause of the crash in October, reports the BBC. It is widely believed by Kiev and Western nations that Russian-backed rebels shot down the plane. Moscow denies this and instead blames the Ukrainian military.

A criminal probe launched by a joint investigation team consisting of detectives from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine is also ongoing.

A public memorial service was held in Australia’s capital, Canberra, on Friday and a permanent memorial plaque was unveiled to commemorate the 38 Australians who died.

“In the worst of times you have displayed the strength of giants and the grace of angels and I am humbled by you,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the crowd, which included family members of those who perished. “We owe it to the dead to bring the guilty to justice.”

Memorial events are also being held in Ukraine as well as the Netherlands, from where 193 of the victims hailed.

In Kuala Lumpur, a service was held on July 11, a week before the anniversary as it would otherwise clash with the Eid al-Fitr festival, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“The end goal is clear — to bring the perpetrators to justice, and ensure they pay for this unforgivable crime,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a statement on the eve of the anniversary.

Malaysia is leading calls from several countries for a U.N. tribunal to prosecute those responsible for downing the flight. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected establishing an international tribunal, saying it would be counterproductive.

Meanwhile, a new video obtained by News Corp. Australia purports to show the rebels filming themselves ransacking the luggage of passengers from MH17.

In the footage, men appear to believe they have come across the wreck of a Ukrainian fighter jet but minutes later realize the aircraft is a commercial liner.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the video was “sickening to watch.”

Warning: The video contains graphic content that some viewers may find distressing

TIME Aviation

Malaysia Airlines Jet Makes Emergency Landing in Melbourne After Reports of Engine Fire

Passengers have disembarked and no injuries have been reported

A Malaysia Airlines plane made an emergency landing in Melbourne on Friday afternoon after reports of an engine fire, the Australian city’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade says.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) reported that 300 passengers were on board Flight MH 148 bound for Kuala Lumpur and that the plane first dumped its fuel, then made an emergency landing at Melbourne Airport around 3:00pm.

The BBC noted that route-tracking websites showed the plane circling the airport multiple times.

Melbourne Airport said via Twitter the plane landed safely, although it could not confirm the reason for MH 148’s grounding. After it landed, the plane was towed to a gate and passengers were allowed to disembark. Paramedics at the scene have not yet had to treat anyone.


TIME Research

FAA Will Study Pilots’ Mental Health

A committee will provide recommendations within six months

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced Wednesday it would study the mental and emotional health of pilots, a move that comes more than two months after investigators say a German pilot flew a commercial jet into the French Alps, killing all 150 people aboard.

While pilots are required to undergo medical screenings with agency-approved physicians once or twice a year, the study was recommended in the wake of tragedies like the crash Germanwings Flight 9525 in March and the early 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean.

The FAA said in a statement that the Pilot Fitness Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC)—to be comprised of government members and aviation experts, as well as medical professionals whose specialty is aerospace medicine—will look into awareness and reporting practices for emotional and mental issues among pilots. The committee, which will also probe the procedures used to evaluate mental health issues and any barriers to reporting them, will provide the FAA with recommendations within six months.

“Based on the group’s recommendations,” according to the statement, “the FAA may consider changes to medical methods, aircraft design, policies and procedures, pilot training and testing, training for Aerospace Medical Examiners, or potential actions that may be taken by professional, airline, or union groups.”

Read next: German Privacy Laws Let Pilot ‘Hide’ His Illness From Employers

TIME Aviation

Malaysia Airlines Begins a Huge Makeover, but First Lays Off a Third of Its Workforce

A man views a fleet of Malaysia Airline planes on the tarmac of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in Malaysia, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015.
Joshua Paul—AP A man views a fleet of Malaysia Airline planes on the tarmac of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in Malaysia, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015.

Airline bets on total transformation to help it overcome the legacy of 2014's two air disasters

Malaysia Airlines (MAS) reassured customers Monday that operations would continue as normal as the airline is restructured into a new company and undergoes an overhaul of its brand.

“You can continue to make reservations in full confidence that our flights and schedules are operating as normal, that tickets sold will be honored,” recently appointed CEO Christoph Mueller said in a statement.

The beleaguered airline has struggled to repair its image after two high-profile air disasters last year — the disappearance of MH370 in March and the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine in July. (Malaysian aviation took a further battering in December, when AirAsia Flight 8501, operated by the Indonesian affiliate of Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia, crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 on board.)

MAS’ overhaul includes laying off between 6,000 to 8,000 employees — about one-third of its 20,000 workforce — and hiring a senior administrator to oversee the transfer of assets and liabilities into the new company, Malaysia Airlines Berhad, by September.

“All employees will get the termination letters and either a letter to join the new company, or to register … [for] outplacement,” a company spokesperson told CNN.

Last year, Malaysia Airlines was pulled from the stock exchange and taken over by the Malaysian government’s strategic investment fund Khazanah Nasional, which came up with a $1.66 billion restructuring plan.

CEO Mueller, who was hired from Irish carrier Aer Lingus, took the top job on May 1 and told Reuters the new company would be like a “startup.”

“It’s not a continuation of the old company in a new disguise, everything is new,” he said.

But Malaysia Airlines was incurring losses prior to 2014 and had costs 20% higher than other rival airlines. Add not one but two disasters within four months of each other, with a still missing plane, and the restructure may not be enough to repair the damage to its brand and Malaysian aviation in general.

“Those two losses have compounded an already difficult and uneconomic situation,” Jason Middleton, head of the School of Aviation at the University of New South Wales, Australia, tells TIME. He adds that while Malaysia Airlines can argue that the loss of MH17 was not its fault, poor communication from the airline and the government have probably tarnished its reputation regardless.

“Cheap seats and a convenient schedule will still bring passengers to use [Malaysia Airlines],” Middleton says. He adds that selling off old aircraft and trimming down the route network “will help their bottom line, but perhaps not sufficiently that they will stop the losses.”

One of the biggest challenges the airline faces is recovering the public’s confidence. “Air disasters can play a big part in the economic impact of the airline but also the psyche of the traveling public,” Michael Daniel, an international aviation-safety consultant, tells TIME.

Daniel suggests that the airline keep an eye on the emergence of the ASEAN single aviation market, which is expected to liberalize air travel between member states. In the meantime, MAS will simply have to be patient.

“I suspect that the many of the public will take a while to forget, and that there is little they can do except wait and hope that there is not another accident,” says Middleton.

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