The lessons from losing flight MH370

30 March 2014


The Age  Melbourne (Comment) Amid the heartbreak  of the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, there are important lessons for the aviation industry and governments about how to handle such a crisis and make aviation even safer.

Perhaps the most obvious lesson comes from the Malaysian government’s and Malaysia Airlines’ less than perfect handling of communications with the grieving  families and with the media. Beginning with the failure of the flight to arrive in Beijing, Malaysia Airlines has struggled to meet the needs of highly emotional families, particularly in China, and a voracious appetite in the media for information.

There were few Chinese speakers among the senior staff of Malaysia Airlines in Beijing on that fateful Saturday morning.  By the time the emergency response team arrived in Beijing and swung into action, families of the Chinese passengers – who made up two-thirds of the flight –  had spent nearly 24 hours in paroxysms of grief and frustration.  The airline did the right thing to put them up in a hotel where they could be kept abreast of developments but then failed during the first week to provide sufficient information.  Worse still, there was confusing information from Malaysian officials and a misstep by China in releasing satellite images of debris in the Gulf of Thailand.

Already on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, such erroneous information  undermined confidence in those trying to manage the crisis and in the counselling they provided.

The information flow improved when the Malaysian government sent a high-level envoy to Beijing, but by then families did not trust any Malaysian official.

The moral is that in this age of global digital media, it is much harder for officials to manage the flow of information. Wrong information and rumours can spread like wildfire, so they must work doubly hard to keep everyone informed. There is also an enormous appetite for technical information, and if authorities do not provide it, others will.

The decision of Malaysia Airlines to text families in English 15 minutes before a press conference in Malaysia by Prime Minister Najib Razak in which he declared MH370 ‘‘lost’’ in the southern Indian Ocean might have seemed like a courtesy but riled families even more. There is no substitute for human contact.

The second lesson  is that we have outdated systems to keep track of aircraft, and that they can be turned off,  even though  far more sophisticated technology has been available for nearly a decade.

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)  is the airline equivalent of having GPS in a car. It can provide accurate real-time data about an aircraft’s location and altitude and speed virtually anywhere in the world, using a network of satellites and ground stations. But the cost of around $10 a passenger has deterred airlines from implementing it.

ADS-B is in use on the busy North Atlantic route and was introduced in Australia for all aircraft that fly over 29,000 feet from December last year. A progressive rollout is planned for Australian airspace, but clearly it is time to commit to it internationally.

The idea that communications can be turned off in a  plane is also a shock to passengers. While we do not know if MH370’s ceasing to communicate was a deliberate act or the result of a fire or catastrophic event, the fact  a pilot could deliberately disable a plane’s communications system needs addressing. And should not there  be an emergency beacon on board available to the cabin crew in the event of something happening to the pilots, who are locked behind a terrorist-proof door?

Then there is the question of black box flight recorders. Why don’t they float?  And in this era of global satellites, why don’t they send out packets of data mid-flight? The technology is available yet again the issue seems to be cost. Surely there are more advanced solutions than the 1960s technology in use now.

The incident has also revealed holes in airport security. Passport control is not as watertight as we would like to think. Two Iranians boarded MH370 with stolen passports. It appears they were asylum seekers, not terrorists. But the ease with which they boarded  showed how widespread the fake passport racket is, and how there is little cross-checking at airports, particularly on departure.

Interpol has an estimated 40 million lost or stolen passports in its database. Passengers boarded planes a billion times last year without their passports being checked against that database. Surely a computer program could be devised that did this automatically and quickly, and be implemented.

On the positive side, we have learnt  that international co-operation can bring nations together on an enterprise such as this difficult search in an especially hostile environment. This will have lasting benefits.

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