Four days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished somewhere between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, its fate remains unknown, adding a cruel uncertainty to the grief of the families and friends of the 239 people onboard.
Planes, ships and satellites from 10 countries — the United States for instance, has dispatched two destroyers, an oiler and a patrol plane — are conducting an extensive and expensive search. Yet much of the excruciating mystery surrounding the plane's loss could have been averted if the recommendations ensuing from an earlier crash had been followed.
On June 1, 2009, an Air France Airbus A330 flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris disappeared off the coast of Brazil. It took five days to find the site of the crash — and two more years to retrieve the plane's data recorders from waters some 3,900 meters (12,000 feet) deep.
Three years after that tragedy, France's air-accident investigation bureau issued its final report, with more than 40 recommendations. Many relate to the specific circumstances that led to the plane's crash, and it's not yet clear whether they would be relevant to the Malaysia Airlines flight.
There is at least one area, however, where their applicability is glaringly apparent: the recording and transmission of flight data. In particular, the bureau recommended that the European Aviation Safety Agency and the International Civil Aviation Organization “make mandatory as quickly as possible, for aeroplanes making public transport flights with passengers over maritime or remote areas, triggering of data transmission to facilitate localisation as soon as an emergency situation is detected on board.”
Such systems exist, but airlines have balked at the expense of installation (which one manufacturer put at less than $100,000 per aircraft) and the cost of transmitting and storing huge amounts of data. Yet the bureau was not recommending continuous transmission, but rather “triggered transmission” — when, say, there are unusual changes in a plane's altitude (a steep bank, for instance), speed or proximity to the ground. A working group of more than 150 people gathered from manufacturers to regulators concluded that such a system could detect anomalies as they happen, and that “nuisance transmissions” — that is, false alarms — could be all but eliminated. The stream of data would not only make travel safer, but also help companies save money on maintenance and fuel efficiency. Cheaper but still effective would be off-the-shelf technology that continually transmits, in short bursts, just a plane's position and velocity when it's over water and out of radar range.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, an unwieldy group that moves more like an aircraft carrier than a jet, has so far not made triggered transmission part of its standards and recommended practices. Nor does it seem to have speedily adopted some of the report's many other sensible recommendations — on coordinating and training for search and rescue efforts, for instance, or requiring all underwater locating beacons to send transmissions for 90 days.
Which leaves a question that will linger after Flight 370 is found: How many more planes will have to vanish before that happens?