Malaysia Airlines (MAS) chief executive Peter Bellew believes the pressure of social media means airlines now have no more than 15 minutes to provide a response to a breaking incident.
On May 30, flight MH128 en route from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur was forced to return to Tullamarine after a passenger claiming to have a bomb tried to enter the flightdeck.
The man was subdued by passengers and cabin crew before armed police came on board to arrest him after the aircraft landed.
Later reports said the the man, a Sri Lankan national, was suffering a mental illness.
Bellew said he was informed of the unfolding drama by the pilots on board as he was preparing to head to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual general meeting in Cancun.
“I was packing my bag to come here,” Bellew told delegates during a panel discussion at the IATA AGM on Monday (Mexico time).
“As soon as we got the call, we worked out the press statement, which included saying we were sorry. Fifteen minutes later the aircraft landed on the ground. At 14 minutes we had the first statement out.”
“Then that got copied on social media everywhere and that dictated where the story went.”
Bellew said the growing use of social media, particularly live streaming, meant the public was quick to pick up news of any incidents such as what happened on MH128.
And airlines could not afford to sit on the sidelines amid the drama.
“I actually think you have less than 15 minutes now to say you’re sorry because people were live streaming on Facebook what was happening on the aircraft because the aircraft was below 4,000 feet,” Bellew said.
“That’s the pressure you’re under now. It’s horrendous. The speed and the proliferation of the social media will overtake you so you have to take control of the story.”
Bellew said a further consideration is ensuring there were senior, frontline stuff quickly on the scene.
“There is nothing better than if the top people are there on the spot at the airports,” he said.
“You can stop the whole thing there and then that minute. It doesn’t go any further.”