Malaysia’s Lessons From the Vanished Airplane
Even as we enter the second month of an unprecedented yet comprehensive search and recovery effort involving 26 different countries, Malaysia’s spearheading of the efforts has not waned. Even so, Malaysia’s and some of our counterparts’ efforts in the 26-nation search and recovery mission has been under intensive international scrutiny and at times come under fire. This is my piece on Malaysia’s realities on the MH370’s disappearance, published in the Wall Street Journal.
My government didn’t get everything right. Yet other parties, too, must learn from MH370—and make changes.
Nobody saw this coming, nobody knows why it happened, and nobody knows precisely where it is. That, essentially, is the story of Flight MH370—at least for now.
The disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 on March 8 has been one of the most extraordinary events ever to befall Malaysia—and one of the world’s greatest aviation mysteries.
On a routine flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, moments after air-traffic controllers in Kuala Lumpur handed the flight over to their counterparts in Ho Chi Min City, the plane’s communications systems were disabled. MH370 went dark.
Instead of heading to Beijing, the plane made a sharp turn across peninsular Malaysia, travelled north up the Straits of Malacca, made a U-turn south over the coast of Sumatra and ended in the southern Indian Ocean, half way to Antarctica. Little wonder that words commonly used to describe MH370 include “bizarre” and “unprecedented.”
Also unprecedented are the techniques used to search for the plane. In the absence of contact via normal aircraft communications, the international investigation team—which includes the world’s best aviation experts—was forced to turn to satellite “handshakes,” mathematics and sophisticated techniques never before used to find a missing aircraft. The team managed to identify where flight MH370 ended, and it has narrowed down a search area off Western Australia. Yet, despite the efforts of the world’s brightest minds and best militaries, the search area remains huge. Finding the plane will be neither quick nor easy.
This tragedy has caused terrible anguish for the families of those on the plane. The lack of definitive proof—such as wreckage from the aircraft—has made the disappearance all the more difficult to bear.
Without physical evidence, or a clear explanation for why this happened, peoples’ attention has naturally focused on the authorities—and Malaysia has borne the brunt of the criticism.
In the passage of time, I believe Malaysia will be credited for doing its best under near-impossible circumstances. It is no small feat for a country the size of ours to overcome diplomatic and military sensitivities and bring 26 different countries together to conduct one of the world’s largest peacetime search operations.
But we didn’t get everything right. In the first few days after the plane disappeared, we were so focused on trying to find the aircraft that we did not prioritize our communications.
Also, it took air-traffic controllers four hours to launch the search-and-rescue operation. But the plane vanished at a moment—between two countries’ air-traffic controls—that caused maximum confusion. Despite this, the search began about a third quicker than during the Air France Flight 447 tragedy in 2009. Nevertheless, the response time should and will be investigated.
None of this could have altered MH370′s fate. And I pledge that Malaysia will keep searching for the plane for as long as it takes. We will also continue facilitating the independent investigation so we can learn from any mistakes. We have already tightened airport security, and investigators are looking for other measures to improve safety.
Yet Malaysia is not the only party that must learn from MH370. There are also important lessons for the global aviation industry. One of the most astonishing things about this tragedy is the revelation that an airliner the size of a Boeing 777 can vanish, almost without a trace. In an age of smartphones and mobile internet, real-time tracking of commercial airplanes is long overdue.
After Air France 447 crashed into the Atlantic, investigators recommended that the airline industry introduce improvements that would help search teams quickly locate a crash site and reach any survivors. But no action was taken. Malaysia’s preliminary report into MH370 includes a recommendation for the real-time tracking of commercial aircraft.
This week, the International Civil Aviation Organization has been meeting in Montreal. One of the issues discussed was real-time tracking of airliners. I strongly encourage the members of ICAO to push this recommendation forward.
We should also consider changing communications systems—namely transponders and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting Systems (ACARS)—so they can’t be disabled mid-air.
Policy makers need to reconsider the capabilities of airliners’ black boxes. At the moment, the location pingers—which are activated if a plane crashes—last only for 30 days. This should be increased to at least 90 days, as the European Union has proposed. If MH370′s black box pinger had lasted for 90 days instead of 30, search teams may have been able to locate the plane by now.
Today’s black boxes can only record the last two hours of cockpit conversation. This seems wholly inadequate. When MH370′s black box is finally recovered, the most important portion of the cockpit conversation—the minutes and hours after the plane first vanished—won’t be available. Given that a standard iPhone can record 24 hours of audio, surely the black box should have sufficient memory to record cockpit conversation for the full duration of any flight.
Airliners’ emergency locator transmitters—which emit a distress signal when the plane is in trouble—could also be improved. Currently they don’t work very well underwater, and their mandated battery life is just 24 hours.
These changes may not have prevented the MH370 or Air France 447 tragedies. But they would make it harder for an aircraft to simply disappear, and easier to find any aircraft that did. Which would help reassure the traveling public and reduce the chances of such a drawn-out disaster reoccurring.
The global aviation industry must not only learn the lessons of MH370 but implement them. The world learned from Air France but didn’t act. The same mistake must not be made again.