The disappearance of flight MH370 should be a lesson to all risk managers and their businesses on the importance of crisis management

The disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste has been the subject of bafflement for almost 150 years. In 1872, the ship was discovered abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean with its cargo and valuables still on board, the vessel apparently undamaged. A lifeboat and the seven-man crew were never found, however. This event was popularised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a semi-fictional account in which he put forward his theory regarding the mystery of the ‘Marie Celeste’. His story and amended name have over time come to be perceived as the ‘truth’. 

Over the years, various explanations have tried to rationalise the events – undersea earthquakes, piracy, mutiny and engine problems are among the many suggestions. The most likely theory centres on the ship’s cargo of 1,700 barrels of alcohol: when some of these leaked, they released a vapour that exploded. However, because the combustible temperature of alcohol is relatively low, the resulting blast was a shockwave rather than a fireball. This would have been enough to panic the crew to man the lifeboat, yet it would not have caused the type of destruction normally associated with an explosion. The crew then drifted away in the lifeboat and failed to find land before their supplies ran out.

This is a plausible explanation and took more than a century to evolve, but it cannot be taken as fact. Likely does not mean definitely.

One of the Mary Celeste’s owners suggested a variation on the combustion theory not long after the discovery of the empty ship, and the advent of recent scientific experimentation has given it genuine credence. However, despite the significant technical advances that have occurred since the Mary Celeste event, some incidents still to defy explanation or logic.

On 8 March, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing. Shortly after taking off, the Boeing 777, carrying 227 passengers and 10 crew, apparently changed course from its scheduled flightplan, headed south across the Indian Ocean and vanished. In the last month, an unprecedented international search involving several countries has taken place, yet, at the time of writing, no trace of the aircraft or those on board has been found.

This extraordinary incident is a mystery that surpasses the story of the Mary Celeste because it is so seemingly inexplicable. In an era where governments can read the emails of individuals anywhere in the world, track real-time movements from mobile phone data or view images of people filmed from space by satellite, how can a large, sophisticated and reliable modern passenger aircraft simply disappear?

As with the Mary Celeste, myriad suggestions – some similar to those relating to the disappearance of the ship – have been suggested to explain what might have happened. These have ranged from the rational to the bizarre and are too numerous to mention. Some of the finest minds and most advanced technology ever developed have been applied to solve this enigma. So far, none have provided a genuine answer and until one does, the agony of the relatives of those on board will continue.

Handling this crisis has been difficult for the Malaysian government and the country’s highly respected flagship airline. In the aftermath, both have suffered a degree of reputational damage. Although some elements of the way in which information has been released could have been dealt with better, how do you explain the unexplainable to a voracious global media following every move of the story 24 hours a day? The benefit of 20:20 hindsight makes an expert out of every pundit and armchair observer and puts those under scrutiny in an unjustly harsh spotlight.

Those heading the search eventually had to admit that they might never find the missing aircraft, meaning they will not be able to discover why it disappeared. Although such an honest admission will only add to the despair of the relatives of the missing, it is a fair, if brutal, concession.

Whatever the outcome, the mystery of flight MH370 should be a lesson to all risk managers and their businesses – that some incidents still cannot easily be explained. Although these are difficult to predict, risk professionals need to ensure their companies have an effective and well-drilled crisis management plan in place that is sufficiently robust to cope with the most extenuating circumstances and pressures. It might not be able to provide all the answers sought, but it could potentially limit catastrophic damage.

Meanwhile, as the search continues, the words of Conan Doyle’s greatest literary creation, Sherlock Holmes, come to mind: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. 

As far as risk management goes, he may well have had a point.