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MISSING MH370: Case likely to trigger aviation reviews, say experts

Publication Date : 22-03-2014


Airline passengers are now familiar with the routine they go through at an airport gate - remove shoes, take out laptop and put liquids in small containers. But few realise that nearly everything they have to do now can be traced to a crash or a close call.

"I could take you through a security checkpoint at an airport like an archaeological dig," said Brian Michael Jenkins, a former member of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.

"I can point to every single piece of technology and every single procedure and tell you what event it is related to historically."

And that transfer from incident to real life would apply more so for a case that captures international attention the way Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 has done, say aviation experts.

Long after the clouds clear over the fate of the missing aircraft and the 239 people on board, pilots and airport crew will likely be using tools or going through processes borne out of the unfortunate incident on March 8.

While the magnitude and speed of those changes will depend heavily on how investigations into MH370 ultimately end, experts say the case has already thrown up issues likely to trigger reviews within civil aviation.

At the top of that list is how planes are tracked by radar and the mechanisms that send data from the plane to the ground.

Finding better ways to track a plane has long been on the plans for the authorities, said Michel Merluzeau, managing partner of aviation consulting firm G2 Solutions, adding that incidents such as the MH370 case will likely push the agenda forward.

"As global aviation grows, we are going to have a lot more airplanes over water, a lot more airplanes over parts of the world that are fairly remote. We are going to have more people in those remote areas," he said.

"The over-water events we have had in the past decade, including Air France Flight 447 in 2009 that was missing for a long time, signalled that something needed to be done."

Similarly, Jenkins raised the example of speculation that perpetrators might have wanted to fly the Boeing 777-200ER into a building as added incentive for a change in aircraft tracking.

Pointing to similar terrorist plots to target Changi Airport and airports in London, he said: "Those scenarios would say that we would like to have the ability to track missing airplanes, better than what has been demonstrated in this particular case."

Yet, for all the reported consensus that radar coverage needs to be better and plane communication systems need to be more secure and sophisticated, it is not always clear how such improvements might be implemented.

For instance, while some say there is serious consideration for communication systems that cannot be turned off by pilots, such systems also pose problems.

Dr Todd Curtis, an aviation analyst who has worked with the United States Air Force and Boeing, said there are very good reasons for giving the pilot the ability to turn things off.

"If you have a device that starts to overheat and threatens to start a fire or to cause nearby systems to overheat, then it makes sense to have the ability to shut it off," he said.

"If you were to have a rule tomorrow that the transponder has to be on all the time, you are opening yourself to having that box be a much higher risk for safety reasons."

Dr Curtis and the others also point to the high cost of improving ground radar surveillance as a potential deterrent for governments, given how rarely they have to deal with rogue aircraft.

"You can put high-tech radar all around the world, but you have to ask yourself: What is the purpose? In a case like this, it would make it easier to find the aircraft, but in normal cases, what is it doing for you?" he said.

Jenkins and Merluzeau also said limited resources and the many complicated trade-offs that factor into a change means it can often take years for new regulations or designs to go into effect. The adoption of a complicated, resource-heavy solution would also mean two or three other options would be sacrificed.

Beyond anticipated changes to planes, radar and the security measures surrounding them, analysts told The Straits Times that the MAS case would likely trigger an international conversation within civil aviation on how to deal with the fallout of a disaster.

Dr Curtis, who now runs airline safety website, said it took the US decades, going through incident after incident, to work out its best practices in dealing with families and sharing information after an incident.

He cites the US National Transportation Safety Board's handling of the Asiana Airlines crash last year as a good example of doing it right.

"There were photographs being sent to the media, there were whole live press conferences being streamed on YouTube. And basically, you were getting a lot of information from the authority responsible for putting the info out. So, there was much less opportunity for conspiracy theorists and people not connected with the actual data to go out there and grab the stage," he said.

And while he said the Malaysian authorities could have done better, he sympathises with them for being hit with an unprecedented event.

"I don't think anyone anticipated the tremendous, overwhelming public attention paid to this that goes far beyond anything we have seen before... Now, you have a cadre of families staying in Kuala Lumpur waiting for answers, and there is no formal structure on how to deal with this."


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