Malaysia Airlines flight 17

Airliners reflect a nation's personality, but prestige can turn to shame

Passenger aircraft that carry a country's flag or name are often a point of pride and prestige, but sometimes things go tragically wrong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 4:51am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 6:38am

The airliner is much more than a machine used to get from one spot to another. It often carries deep symbolism, especially when flying for a national airline.

It can represent hope, modernity and a country's power. And when things go wrong, that once mighty plane can bring about deep national disgrace.

Malaysia now finds itself grappling with the horrific - and extremely unusual - loss of two of its airliners, just four months apart. It is a sad coincidence that also stings.

"It is unbelievable misfortune that struck [Malaysia Airlines] in such a short span of time. It will not affect Malaysia's name, but it will damage the airline's reputation," said James Chin, political analyst at Monash University in Malaysia.

The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday over Ukraine comes just 131 days after the disappearance of Flight 370.

That Boeing 777 is presumed to be on the floor of the Indian Ocean but, without any scrap of wreckage found, it remains one of the biggest aviation mysteries.

Airlines symbolise the nation and are ambassadors
Chris Sloan,

Fair or not, the back-to-back incidents have led travellers to question the safety of Malaysia Airlines. Malaysian officials were widely criticised for how they handled the search for Flight 370.

"Airlines symbolise the nation and are ambassadors," said Chris Sloan, who runs the aviation history and news website "Airlines tend to reflect the values of their countries."

Even before this year's two disasters, Malaysia Airlines had deep financial troubles, losing US$370 million last year. That 6.2 per cent net loss was among the worst in the global industry, according to industry newsletter Airline Weekly. Most of the world's other airlines had a great year, posting an average profit of 4.7 per cent.

"When an airline has the kind of issues that Malaysia has, it becomes a national shame," Sloan said.

In the 1970s, long after their empires fell, Great Britain and France teamed up to create the world's fastest passenger jet. The supersonic Concorde was not always profitable but that did not matter - the jet showed that the two nations were still players on the world stage.

That theme can extend to whole airlines. Italian carrier Alitalia should not even exist any longer, given its abysmal financial performance, says airline consultant George Hamlin. But the government has repeatedly bailed it out.

"That has to do with national pride, more than anything else," Hamlin said.

That deep connection between people and their national carrier also works against an airline when somebody wishes to harm their country. For decades, the carrier El Al has been a target of anti-Israel attacks.

The United States never had a national passenger airline, but Pan Am was long considered its unofficial carrier.

The airline was viewed as an extension of the US government, said Robert van der Linden, chairman and curator of air transport at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

So in countries without a US embassy or consulate, people in trouble would go to the Pan Am ticket office, he said.

That relationship is why Libyans targeted the airline in a bombing over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. Many of those killed were American college and university students flying home for Christmas.

The terrorists of September 11, 2001, hijacked American Airlines and United Airlines planes, in part because of their representation of the country as a whole.



Malaysia Airlines is retiring the flight code MH17 as a "mark of respect" for the 298 dead.

The daily Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur service will take on the code MH19 from Friday.

"We will continue to operate daily services between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur," the airline said.

It is the airline's second flight code retirement in four months after the disappearance of MH370 on March 8.

Agence France-Presse