Airlines symbolize nations' hopes or reflect shame

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 19, 2014 at 6:52 pm •  Published: July 19, 2014
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NEW YORK (AP) — The jetliner is much more than a machine used to get from one spot to another. It often carries deep symbolism, especially when flying for a national airline.

It can represent hope, modernity and a country's power. And when things go wrong, that once mighty plane can bring about deep national disgrace.

Malaysia now finds itself grappling with the horrific — and extremely unusual — loss of two of its airplanes, just four months apart. It's a sad coincidence that also stings.

"It is unbelievable misfortune that struck (Malaysia Airlines) in such a short span of time. It will not affect Malaysia's name, but it will damage the airline's reputation," said James Chin, political analyst at Monash University in Malaysia.

The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday over Ukraine comes just 131 days after the disappearance of Flight 370. That Boeing 777 is presumed to be on the floor of the Indian Ocean but, without any scrap of wreckage found, it remains the key to one of the biggest aviation mysteries.

Fair or not, the back-to-back incidents have led travelers to question the safety of flying Malaysia Airlines. Malaysian officials were widely criticized for how they handled the search for Flight 370.

"Airlines symbolize the nation and are ambassadors," says Chris Sloan, who runs the aviation history and news website Airchive.com. "Airlines tend to reflect the values of their countries."

Even before this year's two disasters, Malaysia Airlines had deep financial troubles, losing $370 million last year. That 6.2 percent net loss was among the worst in the global industry, according to industry newsletter Airline Weekly. Most of the world's other airlines had a great year, posting an average profit of 4.7 percent.

"When an airline has the kind of issues that Malaysia has, it becomes a national shame," Sloan added.

Americans have come to despise their own airlines, annoyed by invasive airport security, packed overhead bins and a lack of legroom. But in other parts of the world, the public takes great pride in national carriers.

"They like to go to the airport and see these great, glistening modern jet airplanes with the flag of their country on it," says Robert Gandt, who spent 34 years as an airline pilot and has written 15 books including "Skygods," an account of the demise of Pan Am.

The giant pre-war route maps of European national carriers like KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Air France were proclamations of those countries' colonial might. The airlines often carried domineering names, like Imperial Airways, a precursor to British Airways.

"What better description is there for its purpose? It was to help keep the empire united," says F. Robert van der Linden, chair and curator of air transportation at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

In the 1970s, long after their empires fell, Great Britain and France teamed up to create the world's fastest passenger jet. The supersonic Concorde wasn't always profitable but that didn't matter — the jet showed that the two nations were still players on the world stage.

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