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The shadow of a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P3 Orion maritime search aircraft can be seen on low-level clouds as it flies over the southern Indian Ocean looking for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in this March 31, 2014 file photo (Photo: REUTERS/Rob Griffith/Pool/Files)
Image: Reuters

'Not ahead of the game'

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
August 22, 2014

There are still few clues as to what happened to Flight MH370. But the aviation industry has already drawn lessons. The question remains, however, how soon they will be acted upon, aviation analyst Chris Yates tells DW.


The search from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is set to resume next month off the Western Australia coast. "My understanding is they're going to start in the next month or so but the search could take up to a year," Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on August 20.

The fate of the plane and the 239 people on board has been shrouded in mystery ever since the passenger jet left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing in the early morning hours of March 8. While the Boeing 777 is believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, international search efforts have so far failed to provide any clues as to what happened to the plane.

Independent aviation safety expert Chris Yates says in a DW interview that the aviation industry has already begun to draw lessons from the incident, but adds that it may take years, if not decades, for the sector to transfer such innovation into the cockpit or airframe.

DW: What does the MH370 incident tell us about the industry's present capabilities to track a passenger plane?

Chris Yates: It comes as a surprise to many people that in an age when we can track people and packages using nothing more than a smartphone app, the aviation industry is not way ahead of the game in terms of its tracking capabilities. The fact of the matter is that the industry has long been behind the times. The reason is in equal parts historical, administrative and financial.

A radar screen tracks incoming and outgoing flights for air traffic controllers at the Terminal Radar Approach Control center on July 14, 2011 at the Denver International Airport in Denver, Colorado.
The MH370 incident shows that the tracking of aircraft in flight should be substantially improved, says YatesImage: Getty Images

Technology constantly appears that may be applied to the aviation sphere, but the time it takes to transfer such innovation into the cockpit or airframe can be measured in years, if not decades. The regulatory framework governing anything to do with flight is extremely rigorous, and needs to be, because one flawed decision can lead to the loss of aircraft in flight and result in many lives lost.

The incident has also shown that the tracking of aircraft in flight should be substantially improved but the aviation industry is only now beginning to address the issue. Improved tracking will lead to the ability to fix the location of a downed airliner with a much greater degree of accuracy and thereby significantly enhance the timely search for possible survivors.

What measures have been implemented industry-wide to prevent such an incident from happening again?

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has recently reached consensus with the airline industry and various other key stakeholders in the aftermath of the loss of the jetliner. It has set out its game plan for improved Global Flight Tracking, which includes a set of short, medium and long term goals aimed at better ensuring that information is provided in a timely fashion to the right people to support search and rescue as well as recovery and accident investigation activities.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has been quick to act and announced new proposals for flight recorders and underwater locating devices which aim at facilitating the quick recovery of an aircraft and of its flight recorders in the unfortunate eventuality of an accident.

The agency's requirements include extending the transmission time of underwater locating devices (ULD) fitted on flight recorders from 30 days to 90 days. EASA has also proposed to equip large airplanes flying over oceans with a new type of ULD that have a longer locating range than the current flight recorder's ULDs.

It's important to remember that the new EASA requirements only apply to those aircraft registered in EASA member states and the increase in Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) recording time only applies to systems fitted on new large aircraft. It remains to be seen whether other national and regional aviation safety regulators will follow suit.

Alternatively, aircraft may be equipped with a means to determine the location of an accident within six nautical miles accuracy. In addition, the minimum recording duration of Cockpit Voice Recorders installed on new large airplanes should be increased from the current duration of two to 20 hours.

Is connectivity - the ability for those aboard a plane to send and receive information to the world outside the flight at all times - the key?

Connectivity may be one of the answers - but in the much longer term. Although many modern aircraft are equipped with internet broadband systems, there's a finite limit on the amount of bandwidth they can support. This is in part because current generation satellite technology has limited bandwidth.

A significant amount of data is captured and stored on aircraft black boxes and it's widely accepted that this would swamp the available broadband bandwidth, if it were constantly streamed to the ground.

How can this issue be solved?

A solution might be to send a subset of the most critical data to ground only when things begin to go wrong with aircraft systems, but such a method is a mighty long way from coming to fruition as yet.

What general lessons has the industry learned from the incident?

A substantial number of lessons have been learned, but whether they'll be acted upon remains to be seen. After the Air France accident of 2009, in which 228 people died when their flight from Brazil plunged into the Atlantic, 120 representatives of the international aviation industry got together to recommend ways to make it easier to find aircraft which crash into the sea.

They suggested that the black boxes should have larger batteries so they would carry on transmitting a beacon for 90 rather than 30 days. They also recommended that the recorders should be designed to break away and float to the surface, rather than sink to the sea floor along with the rest of the fuselage and that the frequency of the transmission should be altered to boost how far away it can be heard, beyond its current 2,000 meter maximum. However, none of these suggestions were acted upon until now.

What are the major impediments in terms of implementing these changes?

Friction also exists between regulators and the aviation industry on the issue of cost. Airlines universally dislike safety recommendations or requirements that could result in them having to replace systems or parts of an aircraft at potentially huge cost and often fight tooth and nail to avoid having to do so.

At least two passengers on MH370 were flying on stolen passports. What does this tell us about security?

The mere fact that two passengers were able to board the flight on stolen passports is unconscionable in this day and age and shows succinctly that in some jurisdictions security exists in name only.

Malaysian government officials revealed back in March that they had not checked the passports of the missing passengers with Interpol's database, which lists stolen passports. Interior Minister Zahid Hamidi told the Malaysian parliament that Interpol's vast database of lost passport records was "too large" and would be too much for Malaysia's database management system. He added that Interpol's information on lost passports might slow down immigration checks at check-in counters.

A relative of one of the Chinese passengers aboard the Malaysia Airlines, MH370 grieves after being told of the latest news in Beijing, China, Monday, March 24, 2014 (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Yates: 'Airlines need to better handle communication in the event of a crisis'Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

But the international organization took exception to his statement, pointing out that no member country had ever complained that the process was too slow as it takes under a second to find out if a passport is listed as stolen. Interpol's database is widely underused and will remain so until there's a requirement for all nation states to access it prior to allowing people to board airplanes. It seems likely that the underfunding of critical IT infrastructure on the part of Malaysia may ultimately be at fault here.

The way the loss of MH370 was handled led to protests from the victims' families. How should airlines deal with such incidents?

Airlines need to better handle communication in the event of a crisis. Building trust and goodwill right from the beginning has a direct impact afterwards on communications with the families and also directly on the business.

The handling of this incident was shambolic from the outset, with the families of the passengers having gone from grieving to protesting, angry at being kept waiting for news, furious about misinformation, and the final indignity of some of them being told the plane had crashed by text message.

Chris Yates is an independent aviation safety consultant based in the United Kingdom.

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