The unique set of circumstances surrounding the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has numerous implications for aviation, and will impact defence as much as commercial air transport.
As time passes since the Boeing 777-200ER’s disappearance on 8 March, with no clues as to its location or the cause of the deviation from its Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flightplan, demands for action to prevent a future information vacuum are increasing in stridency.
When the accident report into the loss of Air France flight 447 in the South Atlantic was published in 2012, French accident investigation agency BEA recommended that aviation authorities should consider mandating communication links that would enable all flights over oceanic or wilderness areas to be tracked in near-real time.
This has not come to pass since then, however, because of communications bandwidth issues and the cost to airlines of streaming information using satellite communications – an essential component of any such system. The cost-benefit calculation does not make sense in pure accounting terms because events such as AF447 and MH370 are extremely rare.
After AF447, Canadian communications systems company Flyht Aerospace Solutions saw sales of its FLYHTStream automated communication system increase. The device streams technical data from an aircraft via satellite to a server on the ground – and hence to whoever needs it – without the need for pilot intervention, when triggered by chosen operational or technical parameters.
FLYHTStream's unique selling point is that the system can provide data that would enable an airline's operations or engineering department – or, in extremis, an accident investigator – to start work without the aircraft or its flight data recorders being present. However, only a small number of airlines have taken up this option, or any of the alternative communication products provided by companies like SITA or ARINC.
The travelling public is struggling with the notion that passengers can be provided with in-flight entertainment systems that enable them to access the Internet and make telephone calls while airborne, yet the aviation industry does not track a 777 carrying 239 people. This shock may yet influence the thinking of aviation authorities, and push them closer to requiring a satellite-based flight tracking system for oceanic or wilderness flights.
The potential for automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast (ADS-B) tracking has been there for more than a decade – and the MH370 777 was equipped with ADS-B – but using it to stream data by satellite is still beset by bandwidth availability and cost issues. This technology would need mandating on an international basis – and that is easier said than done.
However, support from the top of the industry has already been forthcoming. IATA director general Tony Tyler believes the increasingly desperate search for MH370 will trigger a fresh push from the industry to ensure technology is used to reduce the chance of losing track of aircraft.
"I think that we are all very surprised that it can happen like that. It does seem extraordinary that with all the technology we’ve got, an aircraft can disappear like that," said Tyler, speaking at a media round table in London on 13 March.
"Whatever the outcome, I think we will see steps taken to make sure this can’t happen," he says, adding such technology could already be available. "It will certainly trigger a desire to see if we can avert this from happening again."
However, whether Tyler's membership gets behind his rallying cry – particularly if costs are an issue – remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, among the many other mysteries MH370 has thrown up is why no passengers on board attempted to use their mobile phones to raise the alarm early in the flight – if they were indeed conscious of an emergency – as the passengers on one of the United Airlines flights did when the aircraft was hijacked as part of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001.
Another unanswered question is why no military radars picked up the aircraft if it had resumed a northerly flightpath, having deviated to the west of its Beijing-bound flightplan. That answer may yet be clarified if Malaysian investigators are able to confirm the aircraft tracked south over the Indian Ocean, but Indonesia has also not reported any contact over Sumatra.