ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
All right. Roger that. According to Malaysian officials speaking today in Beijing to relatives of passengers, those were the last words heard from Malaysia Airlines flight 370 before it lost communication five days ago. A pilot responding to Malaysian air traffic controllers telling him the plane was entering Vietnamese airspace. Confusion continues in the search today. Vietnamese officials briefly suspended their participation in the search, angered at conflicting reports as to whether the plane reversed course before disappearing.
Mary Schiavo is former inspector general at the Department of Transportation. She's also litigated on behalf of scores of plane crash victims families, and she joins us now. Mary, welcome back to HERE AND NOW.
MARY SCHIAVO: Thank you. Good to be with you.
YOUNG: And what about this new information, the last communication? Does that tell you anything?
SCHIAVO: Well, it just says that at that point, the flight was very normal. All right. Roger that. That's pretty much, you know, pilot lingo. Not reporting any problems. Proceeding on with your flight as, pretty much, you know, literally thousands of flights a day.
YOUNG: Well, it angered people, though, at this apparently very hostile press conference with Malaysian authorities because they had said that the air traffic lost contact at 1:20 AM. on the east side of the peninsula. But now they're saying they picked up words on military radar at 2:40 AM. I mean, and then there's the confusion as to whether or not Malaysian officials said that the plane had done that whip turn and reversed course. The Malaysian official who said that now said that's not true. Your thoughts on all of that.
SCHIAVO: Well, I think the anger is directed, and should be directed, you know, to the Malaysian government and the people who are putting out this information and then retracting the information. They simply don't understand that families of victims of air crashes desperately want information. They hang on any piece of information, and everything about the crash becomes incredibly important. Some of the best investigators that have ever worked with me in cases have been people who have lost someone in a crash because every detail becomes very important.
And I think that's why there is just so much anger because they're entitled to information. If it was in the U.S., the victims - there's a victims protection act, and it says they're entitled to daily briefings. They're entitled to know what the government knows. And people in other countries don't have those rights.
YOUNG: Well, but the point is, what does the government know? So grade the press conferences, if you will, the investigation. Is it fair if they are giving - if they're trying to keep families updated, if the information changes, you know, they have to go with the changes.
SCHIAVO: Well, but I think common sense can tell people that it's not ringing true. For example, you know, first, they said there was indication that it turned back. There was also a report that Vietnamese air traffic control asked another plane to see if they could contact it. The significance of that is sometimes if you lose communications in your antennas or you lose the ability to have your transponder on, other planes in the area can communicate because you have more short range ability communicating. And the plane said that they got very staticy(ph), garbled transmission from the plane.
And then, of course, there was the indication, now retracted, that it had turned back and yet this was after days - at least two days of searching. And, you know, nations from around the world and ships and planes searching in an area that now the Malaysian authorities say, well, I guess, we didn't ever - we never said that. So the anger is well deserved.
And at this point, you have to wonder about their other theories. They had a press conference and they had three or four different theories that they said they're proceeding under. Most of them center around terror or intentional downing, terror suicide. But those don't make sense when you look at their actions.
First of all, if the plane was going on to Vietnamese airspace and it had lost communications, no pilot in a post-9/11 world would do that. Why? Because it would be assumed, if you're not communicating, that there's something wrong. You could be hijacked. You might not - the pilot's not at the controls. Turning back would make complete sense if you were having a mechanical problem or communications problem. And so when they say they turned back, that made sense to people.
Now, they say they, you know, that might have been mistaken. Well, that doesn't ring true. And I think at this point, common sense has to rule out, and they have to say, look, what most likely happened to the plane?
YOUNG: Well, Mary, with all your expertise in this, there has been so much educated speculation - terrorism, a bomb, pilot suicide, some sort of catastrophic mechanical failure. What are you thinking today?
SCHIAVO: Well, my thoughts actually, you know, I rely on some of the brightest aerospace minds in the world - none other than Boeing. Boeing put out a warning back in August, and it said that the 777 had a problem with fuselage cracking.
In particular, it was cracking around the satellite antennas and the communications antennas on the plane. And if that that was the case - for example on this one, it had just been on maintenance 10 days ago, and they had said something very curious. They said they had - it had been in maintenance but they had more maintenance to do and it would go back in June. So I wonder what they did and did not get done.
So if this plane had a problem and it had cracking or some sort of a rapid decompression and lost the ability to communicate to transponder, it would make perfect sense. What would a sensible pilot do? Well, you'd never go into another country's airspace if you'd lost communications and had a rapid decompression. You'd turn around and try to get your plane back home.
And if Malaysia thought it had been hijacked and there was someone else at the controls, why did they allow this plane not only to enter its airspace again - return - but fly for two hours across its country and then head on to Indonesia? That doesn't make sense either. So the most sensible - given what we know, which isn't very much - is that it had a rapid decompression, it lost the ability to communicate with its transponder, not that it was turned off voluntarily or hijacked, but the signal was no longer being sent out.
And then they continued on. Why? Because that's what's the 777 does. The 777 is a really pretty cool plane, so is the Airbus 340 - I don't mean to slight Airbus. But the 777 has a system like the Airbus where when something goes wrong, the plane itself will start shutting down unnecessary systems. It shuts down unnecessary communication systems. It shuts down everything, basically. It will spool down system by system until what's left, control surfaces - left-right, up-down, and the engines. The 777 will fight to save itself. And I think that's what it did.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well - but - we only have about a minute left, but does that mean it might have - shut down, let's say, oxygen?
SCHIAVO: Yes. I'm afraid that it might have done that. And you don't have oxygen forever, by the way. The passengers' oxygen canisters won't last for the length of the fuel tank. They might have had 30 minutes. The pilots, if they hadn't gotten their oxygen masks on in 30 seconds at 35,000 feet, they would have gone unconscious, maybe as long as a minute if they'd had good training. But oxygen would be the key, and they would not have - as much oxygen as they would have fuel to continue the flight.
YOUNG: OK. A terrible, terrible, terrible speculation but an educated...
YOUNG: ...assumptions here. But we are still waiting to learn more. Mary Schiavo, aviation lawyer, author of "Flying Blind, Flying Safe" and former government official. Thanks so much for weighing in today.
SCHIAVO: Thank you. Thank you. Condolences to the families.
YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.