In these days of high-speed connectivity, 24-hour news, tweeting, Skyping, omnipresent surveillance cameras, instantaneous coverage of war zones, invasive monitoring by national intelligence agencies and even apps to find lost cellphones, it is hard to believe that a commercial airliner could simply vanish.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared one week ago — a week filled with anguish and growing anger for the families and friends of the 239 people aboard the Boeing 777 and frustration for those helping search efforts. The search area has expanded to more than 92,000km2, and into the Indian Ocean, using scores of ships and airplanes and hours of satellite imagery. While authorities appear to be no closer to pinpointing where the plane disappeared, several lessons are clear.
The specter of terrorism raised by the use of stolen passports by two passengers appears not to be a factor in the plane’s disappearance, but it is clear that not every country and airline use Interpol’s database. Considering how much personal information airline passengers must provide when purchasing tickets, checking passport details against Interpol’s list of stolen or missing passports should be elementary.
The need for improved aircraft monitoring technology was cited at the end of the investigation into the crash of Air France Flight 447, which plunged into the Atlantic Ocean after departing Brazil on June 1, 2009, killing all 228 people on board. It took almost two years to find the wreckage of the Airbus 330 and a majority of the bodies. The final report released two years ago recommended improved international communications systems to ensure swifter response and recovery efforts after accidents at sea.
Most nations’ air traffic control systems use radar networks built decades ago that do not provide adequate oceanic coverage. There has been an effort by some countries to create satellite-based tracking systems, but these are some years away. However, technology already exists for aircraft to transmit information in emergencies, but airlines have been reluctant to invest because of the costs.
A concentrated international effort to build satellite and beacon systems that every nation and airline could access is necessary, as is the requirement that airlines upgrade their data transmission equipment.
Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government have been caught unprepared by the incident. The lack of crisis-response training has been made painfully clear. Yes, they are dealing with an unprecedented disaster, but Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein’s repeated assertions that the government is releasing the most up-to-date and accurate information have been just as consistently contradicted. Many questions will not be answered unless the plane’s black box is found, but the inadequate response from Kuala Lumpur has only fed speculations, not quelled them. Every government needs to invest in crisis response and management training — and then pray it never needs to use it.
That being said, one disconcerting note over the past week has been the hubris shown in the Chinese government’s criticism of Malaysia’s lack of “transparency.”
Beijing may be playing to its domestic audience with such comments, but a government that minimizes, covers up and even blacks out information about disasters — earthquakes and train derailments, among others — has no grounds to complain about data provided by others. Such comments do little to help the families of people who are missing.