Tracking technologies exist but airlines resist

Flying is safer than ever—so much so that it's nearly incomprehensible that MH370 could disappear, despite search efforts that continue three weeks after the last communication from the plane. In fact, however, the loss of MH370 fits into a recent pattern that might be better described as complete lack of pattern.

“Airline disasters now tend to be unprecedented in nature—what investigators call 'one-offs,'” write Joel Achenbach, Scott Higham, and Ashley Halsey III March 28 in the Washington Post. Safety advocates, they say, are suggesting the need for tamperproof equipment that would stream a plane's position data in real time.

They quote Chris McLaughlin, senior vice president of satellite company Inmarsat, as saying ,”As a ticket-payer, wouldn’t you like to know that the authorities know where your plane is at all times? This is not expensive. We’re talking maybe a dollar an hour or less to get that information off the plane.”

Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, would go even further, they write. She would like to see full black-box data streamed to ground locations. Star Navigation Systems Group of Toronto offers a system that would do that; it $50,000 per plane plus $10 per flying hour, but chief executive Viraf S. Kapadia lamented to the Post reporters that only one customer has bought the system so far.

For its part, Star Navigation has released this statement with respect to MH370 on March 21: “Any loss of an airliner and those aboard is tragic. In this instance, the pain being experienced by those left behind must be compounded by the fact that they have had to endure uncertainty for over two weeks. From Star's point of view, as a company whose business is the real time monitoring of aircraft, it is regrettable that the lessons learned at great cost from the AF447 incident have not been applied in the five years since AF447 was lost. Star participated in the Working Group established by the BEA (the French Transportation Safety Board) to look into the technical aspects of that incident and specifically, the triggered transmission of flight data automatically in an emergency situation, especially over maritime or remote areas.”

The lack of airline flight data hinders search, and it could provide opportunities for terrorists. Achenbach, Higham, and Halsey of the Post quote Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, as saying, “The fact that airplanes can basically disappear over water is not only troubling to passengers, but it also gives a heads-up to those who would do a terrorist act or a murder-suicide. They would be virtually undetected. These planes can fly to almost any place on Earth nonstop.”

Nevertheless, airlines resist adopting new technology. The Post reporters quote Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for the trade organization Airlines for America, as saying that it is “premature for us to speculate and/or discuss potential changes to safety and security procedures.”

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