Have you ever encountered a lemming? Chances are, you have not, unless you live in the Arctic region. A lemming is a type of rodent that reproduces very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that entire colonies often embark on mass migration in order to find new territory.
In popular folklore, this is commonly portrayed as thousands of lemmings leaping off a cliff, committing mass suicide because they obey herd instinct.
In light of the latest tragedy to hit Malaysia Airlines (MAS) this past week, many questions have been asked as to why flight MH17 had been allowed to fly into hostile airspace.
Why didn’t the management choose to deviate to a safer route? Why were no warnings issued? Did corporate profiteering eclipse passenger safety?
MAS management defended its decision and noted that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) had cleared the Ukrainian airspace for commercial traffic use.
No red flags had been issued and other notable carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Aeroflot were using the exact same flight path. Some even did so with a higher level of frequency than MAS.
Does this absolve the powers-that-be of responsibility? In my opinion, only partially.
In the months leading up to the tragic shoot-down, several carriers such as Qantas and Korean Air had made the decision to deviate from this flight path.
They did so as early as March in response to several notices issued by the ICAO and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These were yellow flags urging caution, as opposed to red flags urging avoidance.
The management of these carriers exercised their own judgment and chose to treat the yellow flags as red flags.
What prompted their vigilant decision? Well, for one thing, the tempo of the fighting in Eastern Ukraine had grown increasingly fierce in recent months, leading up to several military aircraft being shot down over the conflict zone.
The most notable one occurred on July 16, mere days before the MH17 tragedy, where a Ukrainian fighter jet had been brought down by enemy fire.
At the time, it was widely believed that the most immediate threat came from shoulder-fired missiles, which posed a danger to aircraft flying below 30,000ft.
Not many people, stopped to consider the possibility that vehicle-fired missiles with a range beyond 30,000ft might pose a danger.
In Malaysian corporate culture, there is a mythic attitude known as “tidak apa”. Loosely translated, it means “It doesn’t matter.”
Right now, it’s impossible to determine how much of a factor that mindset may have played in the decision-making process. Until a full and independent inquiry is carried out, we won’t know very much at all.
In the grand scheme of things, the “tidak apa” attitude is not confined to MAS alone. Singapore Airlines is just as guilty. So is Aeroflot. So is Lufthansa. So is every carrier that made the negligent decision to fly over eastern Ukraine.
Unfortunately, through a combination of bad luck and hubris, it was the innocent passengers aboard flight MH17 who paid the ultimate price.
If you’re a frequent flyer, chances are, you will select a carrier based on price, convenience and quality of service.
But how often does security awareness factor into your choice? Do you actually know why your plane is taking a particular flight path? Do you even care? Take a moment to process all of that.
People often say lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. But, as any meteorologist will tell you, probability is not the same as possibility. We shouldn’t make false assumptions that will only put us in peril.
In short, don’t act like a lemming.