Sovereign property? Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Sovereign property? Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Nine hours after the scheduled arrival time for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, terminal 1 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport was its sleepy self. The only sign of something amiss was the “Pray for MH17” message on the lower right corner of the four-panel arrival screens. Most people seemed oblivious.

Meanwhile, upstairs, an international mix of passengers -- backpackers to business folk -- arrived via taxi and proceeded to the check-in desks, including for Malaysia Airlines, which was operating as normal. Beyond the crowd of journalists congregating by the Old Town White Coffee kiosk near the security check was a uniformed security checkpoint and the Family and Friends Reception Area for Flight MH17.

For the assembled journalists, this was a very different experience from the one just a few months ago, when Flight MH370 disappeared, and Kuala Lumpur was at the center of the story amid allegations that information was being withheld. This time, there's a feeling of distance from the tragedy. For the most part, the information isn’t Malaysia’s to withhold, and the question of blame mostly -- but not entirely -- rests with Russia and Ukraine.

During a packed late afternoon news conference at the Sama-Sama Hotel, adjacent to the airport, Malaysia’s Minister of Transport Liow Tiong Lai offered his country’s unconditional support for the investigation, as well as a plane full of emergency personnel. But even that latter gesture will only succeed with the assistance of another government -- and the agreement of the pro-Russian rebels (who, Liow reported, have given it). Meanwhile, the most important evidence -- the airplane’s black boxes -- may be on their way to Moscow: Liow wouldn't confirm this during his news conference. The transport minister offered no indication about whether the Malaysian government is in a position to demand their return, with Malaysia Airlines being a government-owned carrier.

Nevertheless, the journalists weren’t prepared to let the Malaysian government and its flag carrier walk away from questions about MH17’s flight path, and whether the plane should have been on it. In his prepared remarks, Liow told the assembled media:

Fifteen out of 16 airlines in the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines fly this route over Ukraine. European airlines also use the same route, and traverse the same airspace. In the hours before the incident, a number of other passenger aircraft from different carriers used the same route.

That failed to convince many of the reporters present, with John Sparks of England’s Channel 4 News asking, in reference to the flight path: “Do you accept a terrible mistake was made?” In response, Liow gave an answer that he would repeat several times during the latter part of the news conference: “The approved route is a safe route.”

That may be debatable. Early reports are that other airlines -- including Air Canada -- proactively avoided the route, raising the question as to why Malaysia Airlines didn’t follow their lead. Ultimately, the airline itself will have to answer that. For now, at least, Liow, his government, and many Malaysians are far more concerned with getting access to the crash site and remains of those lost in the tragedy.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net.