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The disappearance of flight MH370 ranks as the greatest mystery of the modern jet age. Four months after the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 investigators are still no closer to solving the riddle.
This is in spite of the recent methodical search for the airliner, which vanished without a trace after leaving Kuala Lumpur in the early hours of March 8 en route for Beijing with 239 passengers and crew aboard.
The favoured theory is that someone onboard, most probably one of the pilots, deliberately turned off all the transponders that would have identified the aircraft on radar and then effectively hijacked the aircraft.
But there are just too many unanswered questions to quell the unease felt behind the scenes by many in the airline industry. Despite promises to ensure that such an event never recurs, there are doubts about how effectively the authorities will implement any recommendations to track commercial airliners.
In the absence of mandatory tracking, the only evidence that enabled investigators to focus the search efforts – on a part of the ocean thousands of kilometres to the south from the last known position of MH370 – was a complex scientific analysis of an intermittent satellite signal from an automatic system on the aircraft.
This data, from an Inmarsat satellite, was combined with primary radar data supplied by the Malaysian air force, which had ignored an unknown radar contact crossing its airspace but only later concluded it must have been MH370.
Four months on from the disappearance, and that same set of data has been used to define a new 60,000 sq km search area. Specialised vessels are mapping the southern Indian Ocean floor before a new deep-sea search commences. This search, using autonomous mini-subs and sonar from surface ships, could take another year.
Costs are hard to determine because so many countries have taken part. The Australians, who have led the search from the early days, have allocated A$90m ($84.3m) to the effort.
The focus for airlines is to ensure the industry retains the trust of the public. This is paramount for a sector plagued by such thin margins that it struggles to sustain profitability. The impact of the 9/11 attacks, when many people shunned flying for months, almost brought the sector to its knees.
It was not surprising, then, that less than a month after the Malaysian aircraft’s disappearance, the airline industry vowed this must never happen again. “The loss of MH370 points us to an immediate need,” said Tony Tyler, director-general of the International Air Transport Association. “A large commercial airliner going missing without a trace for so long is unprecedented in modern aviation. And it must not happen again.”
He said Iata and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the UN agency that sets global standards, were “working together to agree on the best options to improve global tracking capabilities”.
Those assurances disguise the fact that ICAO failed to implement key recommendations put forward by French air accident investigators in the wake of the 2009 crash in the South Atlantic of Air France flight 447, whose black boxes took nearly two years to discover. The French recommendations would have required the tracking of all large aircraft flying over water and forced commercial airliners regularly to “transmit basic flight parameters” such as position, altitude, speed and heading.
The 219-page report by France’s Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la sécurité de l’aviation civile (BEA), published in 2012, also proposed changes to the way black boxes, or flight data recorders, work on aircraft that operate over water. One proposal, extending from 30 to 90 days the life of the battery that powers the transponder used to locate black boxes after a crash, was adopted by ICAO and will come into force in 2018.
Rémi Jouty, head of the BEA, told the FT earlier this year that all the recommendations were made to avoid a repeat of “the difficulties we had in locating AF477 in mid-ocean”. While the tracking technology exists, Mr Jouty pointed to “a need for governments at the international level to reach an agreement”. Although ICAO had discussed the proposals, he said “one aspect” of its failure to require tracking was lobbying by airlines concerned about cost – a view corroborated by a senior airline executive.
Iata’s Mr Tyler insists “MH370 is very different from AF447”. “While we knew pretty accurately where AF447 went down, the issue with MH370 is that it disappeared from tracking capabilities, which included radar surveillance.” An interim report into the disappearance of MH370 by the Malaysian authorities repeated the BEA’s recommendation that commercial aircraft should be tracked at all stages.
Mr Tyler says the trade body will “have some draft recommendations to share with ICAO and our members in September. And our board will decide on it in December”.
Iata cannot mandate the use of tracking equipment. That would require ICAO action – and the UN body’s record on rapid implementation of any changes is poor.