The now-infamous flight lost contact with air traffic control at 1.34am on March 8, an hour after take-off. But in this, his first major interview since MH370 disappeared, Dunleavy reports it was three hours later by the time air traffic controllers — having tried and failed to get a response from the plane and from radar controllers in Vietnam, Hong Kong and China — sent that emergency text.
Dunleavy is one of London's brightest expats: he grew up in Ealing, took a PhD in physics at Sheffield University then started his career working in a role "I can't talk about" for the Ministry of Defence. He was the first to arrive at the airline's emergency control room that morning; then he became Malaysia Airlines' public face as the tragedy unfolded.
"My first thought was that the pilot had fallen asleep, or something had gone wrong with the communication system," he says. "We had five other aircraft in the sky nearby, so our senior pilots started contacting them, asking if they'd seen MH370, getting them to ping it. But we got no response."
Three months since that plane and its 239 passengers and crew went missing, there's still no trace. "Something untoward happened to that plane. I think it made a turn to come back, then a sequence of events overtook it, and it was unable to return to base. I believe it's somewhere in the south Indian Ocean. But when [a plane] hits the ocean it's like hitting concrete. The wreckage could be spread over a big area. And there are mountains and canyons in that ocean. I think it could take a really long time to find. We're talking decades."
Dunleavy replays the early hours of response, wondering what could have been different. "People say, 'Why didn't you work quicker?' But you're calling pilots, explaining the situation, waiting for them to send out pings, doing the same to the next plane, then the next, and it's four in the morning, you don't have 50 people in the office, only a couple. An hour goes by frighteningly quickly — you realise that the missing plane is now another 600 miles somewhere else."
A vigil for the missing flightThen there was the "frightening speed at which false information was coming in — after only an hour in the control room, rumours were coming in on social media. 'Your plane has landed in Nanning, China'. 'It's in the airport of an island near Borneo'. You've got to follow up, calling your local people, getting them out of bed to find up someone who worked at the airports — mostly remote places, not 24-hour operations — to check if the plane was there. We lost an hour just on that Nanning rumour."
Finding an AWOL plane wasn't a priority for international air traffic controllers. "We were calling, but they've got other planes in the air; they're saying, 'Your plane never entered my air space, so technically I don't have to worry about it at the moment'. They're not dropping everything to answer us."
In those first hours, Malaysia Airlines' executives all thought the plane had diverted — not crashed. "But by 06.30, the plane was supposed to be landing at Beijing. People were waiting for it; we had to do a press release," says Dunleavy. The media swarmed in Beijing, and 130 Malaysia Airlines executives needed to get there — but none had Chinese visas. "No one wants to talk about that side of things but it took hours, not minutes, to sort it all out — there were negotiations. Eventually we got to Beijing at 10.30pm. Then officials came to our plane to issue visas, which took another two hours."
By midnight, when Dunleavy approached the Beijing hotel ballroom that hosted sobbing, frustrated relatives, he and his colleagues needed Chinese police protection to take them through the bowels of the hotel to avoid being besieged.
"As far as the families were concerned, the plane had been hijacked by terrorists, the Malaysian government was negotiating with them, and we weren't telling them. I knew that wasn't happening — there had been zero communications from MH370."
For the first 48 hours, Dunleavy and the airline's team of "care-givers" didn't sleep, dashing between the hotel's ballroom and chaotic press conferences. "No one went to bed. But we had no news. Conspiracy theories were coming out — blaming Chinese scientists on board, the mangosteen [4.6 tons of the exotic fruit were on board], all this rubbish. Every news channel had some 'expert' — who'd never been to Malaysia, and had no idea about our planes — coming up with stories about what may have happened. Then a family member would latch on to one of those ideas that appealed to them. There would be 50 different people all arguing about 50 different scenarios, and I'm saying — through a translator — 'I can't tell you what happened until we find the plane', over and over."
About 32 hours after MH370 went missing, Dunleavy entered the ballroom, got everyone's attention, and said: "I think you all need to be prepared for the worst."
The 61-year-old describes the scene to me as we sit in the relaxed backdrop of the Langham in the West End, but he still pales as he remembers: "That's when the screaming started. One person had a heart attack. Others fainted. People started throwing things at me, mostly water bottles. The police were standing there, but they said 'this is part of our culture, it's normal' and that they wouldn't interfere unless they started throwing chairs and tables."
At its peak, the ballroom hosted 1,500 people. Dunleavy says much of the relatives' anger was directed at the Malaysian government. "They blamed them for not tracking the aircraft more solidly." The first week was spent searching in the south Indian Ocean — before an official source revealed the plane had been spotted on military radar making a U-turn and heading towards an island in the Malacca Strait.
"I only heard about this through the news," Dunleavy says, for the first time letting anger inflect his voice — a hybrid English-German-Canadian accent thanks to a string of airline career moves. "I'm thinking, really? You couldn't have told us that directly? Malaysia's air traffic control and military radar are in the same freakin' building. The military saw an aircraft turn and did nothing.
"They didn't know it was MH370, their radar just identifies flying objects, yet a plane had gone down and the information about something in the sky turning around didn't get released by the authorities until after a week. Why? I don't know. I really wish I did.
"It made people look incompetent, but the truth is, it's early in the morning, you're not at war with anyone, why would you jump to the conclusion that something really bad is now transpiring?"
Dunleavy is adamant Malaysia Airlines did the best it could for the Chinese relatives on board MH370, paying for hotel rooms, food bills, distributing $5,000 to families and organising 520 passports and Malaysian visas plus a plane for the Chinese to fly to Kuala Lumpur, only for the vast majority to decide to stay in Beijing. But the carrier faced global criticism for texting relatives that it was "beyond doubt" their loved ones were killed.
"That wasn't done in a callous way," Dunleavy says, "we only got 15 minutes' notice that the government was going to make that announcement, there were six hundred people in six different hotels, and they had suggested text messages to us at the start. We thought, 'isn't it better they get the message before the media relays it?'"
The airline expects the tragedy to cost up to $500?million. Three months on, Malaysia Airlines is getting back to business. It's Dunleavy's job to make passengers want to fly on the carrier again — demand slumped after MH370, and bookings from China fell 65 per cent. The airline will this year install pioneering technology (from Inmarsat, the Old Street firm which gained global fame for its satellites' role in the search for MH370) that means if a plane ever deviates from its flight path, it will send out a signal.
"We will always remember MH370. We will take care of the people and we're working on what sort of a memorial we will have. But we are a business. We have to keep flying, we have 20,000 staff, shareholders, and 50,000 passengers each day. We owe it to them to get the airline back and move beyond MH370."