05 Apr 2014
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – When the aviation industry’s safety experts sat down in Kuala Lumpur for their annual meeting this week, there was one issue that was uppermost in their minds: the fate of missing flight MH370.
“I don’t think I could start my remarks in any other way than by acknowledging the human tragedy of MH370,” Tony Tyler, the Director General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), told delegates as he opened the meeting earlier this week. “The best way for all of us involved in aviation to honour the memory of those on board is to learn from what happened to improve safety in the future.”
Four weeks after the Boeing 777-200 and its 239 passengers and crew went missing on a seemingly routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the chances of finding out what happened remain remote.
Not a single piece of wreckage has been found and with no physical evidence, let alone the data and cockpit voice recorders, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s announcement on March 24 that the plane had “ended,” its journey in the southern Indian Ocean, thousands of miles off course, has done little to ease the anguish of the families of those on board.
For days, a multinational search force including Australia, the US and China has taken to the seas and the skies off Australia’s western coast, the search parameters refined regularly according to satellite imagery and the electronic “pings” that the aircraft continued to make even after normal on-board communications ceased to function. But the scale of the task remains immense. Daily search areas cover tens of thousands of square kilometres of some of the world’s most remote ocean.
The fact that the plane was able to vanish has worried an industry that is proud of its safety record. Figures released this week showed that in 2013 for every 2.4 million flights involving Western-built aircraft there was one accident after which the plane could not be repaired. That was an improvement of nearly 15 percent over the five-year average.
“For our safety projections any loss of life is one too many,” said Nancy Graham, who has responsibility for the safety of the global airline industry as Director of the Air Navigation Bureau at the International Civil Aviation Organisation. “We are very focussed to getting to the root of any problem. We are disciplined about that.”
This week, IATA, which represents 240 global airlines, set up a special taskforce to advise on how best to ensure an aircraft can never again go missing. It’s due to present its findings by December and it’ll then be up to ICAO to introduce any recommendations. IATA’s Kevin Hiatt, who oversees safety and flight operations at the group, says that might involve third party or airline tracking and would be additional to existing data streaming tools and communications equipment.
“I want to be sure everyone understands that we’re not talking about tracking in terms of air traffic management and the handling of the aircraft in and around the air traffic system,” Hiatt, who spent twenty years as an airline pilot, told Al Jazeera. “We’re talking about the tracking of an aircraft separately to take into account an event like this.”
Despite the rapid development of mobile communications, the airline industry remains largely reliant on tried and tested equipment like ground-based radar, VHF radio and satellite communication.
MH370 was able to disappear after the cockpit transponder failed – investigators say it may have been turned off deliberately – and the ACARS system, which monitored the performance of the Boeing 777-200s two Rolls Royce engines, also stopped updating.
The last communication from the cockpit, as the pilots said goodbye to Malaysian air traffic control and moved into Vietnamese airspace, gave no indication that anything was amiss.
Shortly afterwards, Malaysia’s military radar picked up an object flying across the north of the country towards the Strait of Malacca and out into the Indian Ocean. The blip didn’t appear hostile so radar operators didn’t take action.
As the plane disappeared from civil, and, possibly, military radar, it still continued to send out hourly electronic “pings” to a satellite from the British company Inmarsat. Technicians at the firm were first able to work out the aircraft had remained in the air for more than five hours, heading in one of two arcs – either north or south – and then that it had definitely taken the southern route, heading out into the Indian Ocean.
Many expressed shock that not only could the plane go missing, but that none of the passengers were able to alert anyone on the ground to what was happening. “We all think that we live in an interconnected world, but the reality is that there are gaps,” said Andrew Herdman, Director General of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines whose members include Malaysia Airlines. “You get a couple of miles offshore or up in the air and you are out of the range of the ground stations. Our mobile phone is useless.”
IATA says any new tracking system will be made available to all airlines operating across the globe. “Maybe we work with what’s currently on board the aircraft maybe a refinement. It could be another technology. We’re keeping an open mind,” said Anthony Concil, IATA’s Director of Corporate Communications. “There are lots of systems on an aircraft. You can’t just pop a new piece of kit on. You have training requirements, procedural requirements and you want to be sure it doesn’t affect other things on the aircraft.”
Modern aeroplanes have millions of separate parts and thousands of different systems. Given the potentially catastrophic nature of any fire on board a plane, anything that requires power from the plane also needs a circuit breaker that would allow it to be isolated in case of any malfunction. The same would apply for any emergency tracker. Equipment that’s impossible to turn off may also carry a risk, according to experts.
With the batteries on the flight and data recorders due to expire in the next few days, the Australian-led search teams on Friday began looking beneath the waves, with two ships using underwater technology to scour a 240-kilometre track derived from date on the plane’s flight path.
The search is already the longest in modern aviation history, eclipsing Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic off the Brazilian coast in 2009. Searchers found the first debris from that plane after five days, but even with the search area narrowed down it was two years before the key flight recorders were recovered allowing investigators to piece together the chain of events that led to the crash.
The Indian Ocean averages a depth of nearly 4,000 metres and is renowned for its strong currents. With the approach of winter in the southern hemisphere weather conditions are likely to worsen as the days go on. While some have cautioned that the world may never know what happened to the Malaysian plane, Malaysia’s Najib this week assured families the search would not waiver.
“We are here today, but our thoughts are thousands of kilometres away,” he said in a statement after a visit on Thursday to Perth where search operations are co-ordinated. “I know that until we find the plane, many families cannot start to grieve. I cannot imagine what they must be going through. But I can promise them that we will not give up.”
Regulators too insist they’re committed to finding the plane. Knowing what happened to MH370 will be the key to ensuring it can’t happen again. “There’s a commitment to as long as it takes,” said ICAO”s Graham. “I have to tell you that an incident like this hurts all of our hearts.”