Another Malaysia Airlines Mystery: Who Pays?

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, but it's only a matter of time before the families of the lost passengers begin to ask a pair of questions: How much money will they receive for the losses of their loved ones, and who will pay?

They are questions that don't necessarily need to wait for the plane to be found to be answered.

As it turns out, there's an international treaty for every occasion. In this case, it's the 1999 Montreal Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air, which entered into force in 2003 and standardizes the rights of passengers on international flights.

Under the Montreal Convention, "the airline, even if it's not responsible, is required to compensate the victims' families," said Mike Danko, an aviation attorney in Redwood Shores, Calif., who has worked on litigation related to the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco in July 2013. Passengers of that crash have filed suits against Asiana Airlines and, in January 2014, against Boeing.

In some instances the airline will not even wait until the wreckage is found to start discussing payments -- that was the case when Air France began dispersing money to the family of each passenger aboard a flight that went down off the coast of Brazil in June 2009 just days after it disappeared.

"The question," according to Danko, "is how much."

The treaty entitles families of the victims to payouts of up to about $150,000 per person, but how that gets doled out is specific to each incident. After Air India Express Flight 812 crashed in May 2010, the Indian government said that the airline was liable for up to $160,000 per passenger, but when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 crashed taking off from Beirut in January of the same year, the airline only paid out $20,000 per passenger.

"The real issue, as is the case in all these cases, is under whose law," Danko said. That gets more complicated. Victims' families have the option to sue for more damages in multiple countries under the Montreal Convention, and they will likely file suit in the country where they're most likely to win their cases and receive the highest settlements. In this case, families of the missing passengers can file in Malaysia (because it is the base of operations for the airline), in the country of the victim's residence, or in the country of the victim's intended destination (which is not necessarily Beijing -- if the victim had a connecting flight to another country, the family could sue in that country).

That may give an advantage to families who can bypass Chinese and Malaysian courts, like the families of the three American and nine European passengers. "In some countries, fair compensation for the loss of a son may be deemed to be $20,000. In the United States, that may be millions of dollars," Danko said. "That is determined on where you bring suit."

All the passengers' families, though, will have the option to file a suit in the United States against Boeing, the manufacturer of the disappeared 777 jet. "Usually what happens are family members who are otherwise unable to bring suit against the airline will bring suit against the manufacturer," Danko said. For example, after a flight from Manaus to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, crashed, families of the victims filed suit against the U.S. companies that operated the jet and made some of its safety equipment.

But until the plane is found and more is known about the circumstances that brought it down, it would be difficult to prove that families are owed compensation because of a mechanical failure. As with so much else about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the biggest mysteries are yet to be solved.



In Online Scams, New Nigerian Prince Is a Syrian Government Official

Check your email. There is a Syrian banker who really needs your help.


My apologies writing you a surprise letter, My name is Mr .Anbouba issam from Damascus Syria."

In other words, there is a new online scam in town, and it's pretty shameless. Written in the usual impeccable English grammar of online scams, with creative spelling and innovative capitalizations, a former Syrian "bank director" asks you to help him with some of his assets that had been frozen in a "foreign land." He later clarifies that this "foreign land" is the United Kingdom and, um, "Asia."

And then comes the only remotely grammatically correct sentence in the email (so probably copy-pasted from another source), which also, ironically, condemns "Mr. Anbouba issam's" government: "The European Union imposed sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's regime after it violently suppressed anti-government protests killing thousands of innocent people." At least he's owning up to it.

Syria has been ravaged by civil war since 2011 after the country's President Bashar al-Assad indeed "violently suppressed anti-government protests." The estimated death toll in February was at least  140,000 and the conflict has caused a massive humanitarian crisis in the region, with refugee camps overflowing and militants spreading   into neighboring countries. The international community condemned the Assad regime for using chemical weapons on civilians and imposed multiple sanctions on the government.

"Mr. Anbouba issam's" plea for "urgent action" is the newest iteration of the infamous "Nigerian scam" --also called the "419 scam" for the fraud section of the country's criminal code -- where a purported government official or "prince" offers millions to their "partner" (prey) for help with transferring funds out of the country. The practice actually dates back before the Internet era with the first "Nigerian scams" being sent out by snail mail and fax.

The fraudulent Syrian email also isn't the first to be shamelessly leeching off a war zone. In the early days of the Afghanistan war, American Special Forces soldier "Bradon Curtis" wanted your help with moving a suitcase full of $36 million of terrorist drug cash out of Afghanistan.

During the Iraq war, in turn, "Sgt. Jennifer L--" found an astonishing amount of cash that belonged to Saddam Hussein's family." Sgt. Jennifer was "being attacked by insurgents everyday and car bombs," so it would be very kind of you to help her to move the cash out of the country. "No strings attached," naturally.

At least the Afghanistan and Iraq scammers tried to appeal to their recipients' patriotism. "Mr. Anbouda issam's" tactics are unclear, to say the least.