Here’s Malaysia Airlines’ side of the story regarding those text messages the airline sent to the families of the passengers on board missing Flight 370 shortly before Malaysia’s prime minster announced that “all evidence” points to the fact that the jetliner plunged into the southern Indian Ocean, killing every one on board (emphasis mine):
It is with deep sadness that Malaysia Airlines earlier this evening had to confirm to the families of those on board Flight MH370 that it must now be assumed the flight had been lost. As the Prime Minister said, respect for the families is essential at this difficult time. And it is in that spirit that we informed the majority of the families in advance of the Prime Minister’s statement in person and by telephone. SMSs were used only as an additional means of communicating with the families. Those families have been at the heart of every action the company has taken since the flight disappeared on 8th March and they will continue to be so. When Malaysia Airlines receives approval from the investigating authorities, arrangements will be made to bring the families to the recovery area and until that time, we will continue to support the ongoing investigation.
The news of the text alerts broke shortly before Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak stepped to the podium late Monday night local time, and at first blush the SMS alerts appeared to be a rather cold-hearted way to break the news to families who have been waiting for more than two weeks to learn the fates of their loved ones. As the Washington Post put it shortly after the news broke: “Whatever the practical benefits of using a text message to inform families that their loved ones were thought to be dead, it seems likely this move may also be criticized.” A quick scan of Twitter suggests that was an understatement.
In reality, however, the airline says the text alert (which you can see in full here) was only a secondary means of communication, presumably used in hopes of reaching any family members that either weren’t around to be told in person or weren’t answering their phones. “We wanted to ensure that families were informed via all channels,” an airline spokesperson told Sky News earlier today. The airlines’ logic appears to have been that a text message was better than no message at all.
I’ll note that, as of now, we only really have the airlines’ side of the story. That said, there’s little to suggest that the company didn’t reach out in person and over the phone as they say they did. About 30 minutes before the public announcement, for example, there were several reports that the families were being told to attend a briefing with officials. An early, pre-press conference CNN report on today’s news, meanwhile, cited “a relative of a missing passenger briefed by the airline in Beijing.”
At least a few relatives no doubt really did first learn the news via text—and I certainly won’t go as far to argue this situation was handled perfectly—but I will say that it appears rather clear by now that the immediate handwringing and headlines were less than fair to the airline and to the actual timeline of events that took place late Monday night in Kuala Lumpur.
In an ideal world, of course, the sad news would have been delivered in person to each and every relative of all 239 passengers who boarded the missing jetliner—but, then again, in an ideal world those 239 passengers would have all arrived safely in Beijing back on March 8.