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March 22nd, 2014
07:48 PM ET

Why "modern" plane technology fails

By Michelle Koepp

Now entering its third week, the eerie vanishing of Malaysia Airlines 370 severely undermines confidence in airline security, and raises suspicions that all the post-9/11 security “reforms”–everything from dumping out bottles of water, to lines of travelers padding into full-body scanners in socks or bare feet–seem to create only the illusion of safer travel. Curiously, in today’s digital age, the mode of transport itself–the jetliner–is still sustained by technology from the radio era. While airline passengers can text on board, answer emails and surf the net, even stream movies through in-cabin wifi, the technology powering the plane itself is resigned to pre-dial-up internet connection speeds. And while today billions of devices, including the personal gadgets that can be used in-flight, are connected to the Internet, jetliners such as the missing Malaysia flight are not among them.

Around the time that someone uttered the now-infamous signoff to air-traffic control, “all right, good night” at 1:19 am on March 8, the second of two airline communications systems on MH370 went dark – ACARS, a system for sending status updates and messages. Seemingly just like that, an over-200 foot long plane carrying 239 people just vanished, and today’s technology has hardly a clue what happened to them. With no datalink to continuously stream data collected or stored during the flight, the plane had effectively disappeared from the monitors, and in the absence of information, news of what had happened was overtaken by theories ranging from terrorist hijacking to mid-air explosion to ever more convoluted conspiracies.

Three days after the plane’s disappearance, Noah Shachtman, a fellow at the Brookings Institute's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, talked to CNN about the shortcomings in modern aviation technology. The best option for finding the plane still remains the tantalizing “black box”, but Shachtman explained, the beacons a black box emits “can only call out for about 5 miles or so. It’s still very very very hard in the open ocean.” Indeed, with the immediate focus area of the search–albeit now having narrowed to a fraction of its earlier proportions–still covering more than two million square miles of some of the most isolated stretches of the Indian Ocean, Shachtman said that locating the black box is like finding “the smallest of needles in the biggest of haystacks.” Indeed, it may surprise many that the black boxes themselves are not even outfitted with any form of GPS.

Even veteran aviation expert Pierre Jeanniot, who directly helped pioneer the invention of the black box, said as early as 2004, “the black box is obsolete.” Jeanniot pressed for planes to implement already-available technology, such as satellite transmissions, to record flight data. In the 2009 aftermath of the Atlantic Ocean crash of Air France 447, the aviation disaster that elicits the closest comparisons to the mystery of MH370, Jeanniot reaffirmed his opinion in an interview with Agence France Presse: “technology has evolved." However with the AF447 crash wreckage was spotted within one day, so authorities knew where to search–but with no confirmed wreckage found in the disappearance of MH370, the search is limited only to the mind-boggling millions of miles of the Indian Ocean.

Many aviation experts have expressed hopes that the desperate search for MH370 will turn into air travel’s “Titanic” moment, and spur much-needed reforms, the way the Titanic tragedy did for ocean travel. In fact, one post-Titanic reform is strikingly similar to one which has been suggested for airplanes in the wake of MH370’s vanishing, that of maintaining constant communication.

Some argue that such improvements will be costly and cumbersome, citing the money and effort needed to outfit airliners with new equipment that would allow them to stream flight information. However, “There's a tombstone mentality”, says Bob Benzon, a former Air Force pilot and NTSB investigator. “You actually have to have a very tragic event to get things done. I predict that this is one of those events unfortunately.” Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, argued that although current airlines may be insisting that the rarity of accidents such as the Air France and Malaysian Airlines disasters fail to justify the high cost of streaming flight data, the cost of the search efforts must be weighed as well. “Look at what's happening now,” he says. “We've lost a 777 and over 200 people. Navies and airplanes from around the world are searching for this plane. That's not cheap either.”

On last week’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, CNN aviation analyst Steven Wallace described the disappearance of MH370 as “unprecedented” in today’s hyperconnected world. “We are not talking the Bermuda Triangle or Amelia Earhart, but the modern jet era,” Wallace told Candy Crowley. Indeed, hopefully reforms will soon be enacted that so that hunts for jetliners in 2014 will no longer have to resemble the search for Amelia Earhart’s lost flight.

Filed under: MH370 • SOTU Extra • State of the Union
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