Why Did Malaysia Airlines Wait Until Now to Call Flight 370 an ‘Accident’?

January 29, 2015 Updated: January 29, 2015

Malaysia Airlines on Thursday officially described missing Flight MH370 as an “accident,” triggering ire from the family members of some passengers who were on board the ill-fated plane.

“There’s nothing new. The Malaysian authorities have been covering up the truth from the get-go, and they have no credibility to speak of. We are not accepting the conclusion,” Wen Wancheng, the family member of a passenger on board the airliner, told The Associated Press.

There’s legal reasons for why Malaysia Airlines deemed it an “accident” and not a terrorist attack or assigning criminality, notes Albert Goldson, head of Indo-Brazilian Associates LLC, a global firm that advises on security risk for firms engaged in overseas business.

If it were designated as “criminality or terrorism, then the investigation would shift to the politically unpalatable area culpability with respect to security,” he notes. “As a result, the subsequent lawsuits and insurance payouts would dwarf those of the accident insurance payouts.”

“This determination does not necessarily close the book on the continued search for the aircraft,” Goldson adds. “Nonetheless, determining that the disappearance was an accident significantly reduces the incentive, logistically and financially, for a continued intensive search.”

It also means the families are entitled to compensation.

“From the point of view of the families of those on board, as in the Air France case, legally it makes no difference as to claims against the airline why the machine faltered, plunged, or flat landed into the ocean,” wrote legal expert Gerald Sterns via email. Sterns wrote book on the 2009 Air France accident that left 228 people dead.

If the event is determined to be an “accident,” under the international Montreal 99 Convention, which attempted to reestablish uniformity regarding victims of air disasters, “any combination of events is an ‘accident’  … and will entitle families to compensation of some kind,” Sterns added.

He said the families’ best option lies in “the courts of Malaysia.”

FILE - In this March 18, 2014 photo, a young Malaysian boy prays, at an event for the missing Malaysia Airline Flight 370, at a shopping mall, in Petaling Jaya,  on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  After a four-month hiatus, the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is about to resume in a desolate stretch of the Indian Ocean, with searchers lowering new equipment deep beneath the waves in a bid to finally solve one of the world's most perplexing aviation mysteries.  (AP Photo/Joshua Paul, File)
In this March 18, 2014 photo, a young Malaysian boy prays, at an event for the missing Malaysia Airline Flight 370, at a shopping mall, in Petaling Jaya, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (AP Photo/Joshua Paul, File)

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared on March 8, 2014 and had 239 people on board.

On Thursday, Malaysia’s civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said the search for the aircraft would continue and “remains a priority.” For months, Malaysian and Australian vessels have been searching a swath of the southern Indian Ocean hundreds of miles west of Perth, located in western Australia.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the agency leading the search for the plane, said in an update this week more than 18,000 sq. km (6,950 sq. miles) was searched so far. Nothing has turned up, however.

Malaysia Airlines has said the victims’ next of kin will be compensated once the plane was officially declared a loss. It reiterated its stance on Thursday.

“Following the announcement today, Malaysia Airlines’ representatives will be contacting the appointed next-of-kin to proceed with the compensation process. The airline remains steadfast to ensure that fair and reasonable compensation is paid to the families of all MH370 passengers in accordance with the applicable laws,” the company said in a statement.

On Thursday, some family members of the passengers who were on the plane criticized Malaysian officials following the “accident” designation.

“Because you have no evidence at all. How can you come to such a conclusion?” Wang Chunjiang, who lost his brother on the plane, was quoted as saying. “Chinese New Year is coming up. Why did you choose now to make the announcement?”