On Tuesday, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) released a report that should have been received as good news by the flying community. In 2013, only 210 people were killed in commercial aviation accidents, nearly 50 percent fewer than the 414 casualties reported in 2012.
For context, 3 billion people flew safely in 2013, traveling on 36.4 million flights, meaning that we should logically feel pretty good about the state of flying in 2014. Yet for three weeks, the globe has been consumed by the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, an air catastrophe that world's best international aviation experts have been unable to explain.
Though authorities have concluded that the plane crashed into the south Indian Ocean roughly six hours after it severed (intentionally or not) contact with ground control, nobody can figure out how, or why, the plane went down. And no physical trace of the missing Boeing 777 has been found.
According to The Daily Beast's Clive Irving, "no accident in the history of aviation has so spooked people around the world." And, Irving continues, the tragedy struck during a time of rapid expansion for the airline industry:
This crisis has hit the airline industry at a time when there seemed to be no limits to its growth. Global air travel has increased at an average rate of between five and six percent per year, even in times of economic distress. Demand is highest in places like China and Southeast Asia, where sudden wealth is fueling the urge to travel to faraway places. Industry forecasters agree that by 2030 the Asia Pacific region will overtake both North America and Europe to become the largest aviation market, accounting for 32 percent of the total.
In order to win back some of the confidence that has built up over years of relative safety (consider that nearly 1.3 million people die in car accidents every year) the aviation industry will likely have to adopt some new standards in response to this latest tragedy. Even as they are still unsure what, if any, measures could have prevented it.
In tandem with its positive report on Tuesday, IATA said it is creating a task force to make recommendations on how to improve aircraft tracking by the end of the year.
IATA General Director Tony Tyler said, "in a world where our every move seems to be tracked, there is disbelief that an aircraft could simply disappear. Accidents are rare, but the current search for 370 is a reminder that we cannot be complacent on safety," adding "we cannot let another aircraft simply vanish."
Here's what could — or at least, should — change as a result of the unresolved fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Live-streaming flight data
Last week, Joe Kolly, the research and engineering director for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said the group is examining live-streaming some flight data recorders, removing the need to search for a plane's black box in the event of a crash. According to Kolly, "You're looking for what is the most important information... We have our staff involved in technical meetings and discussions and working groups on just what type of data you would need... what are the rates at which those data need to be transmitted, [and] what is going to trigger the data download."
According to CNN, the Canadian company Flyht Aerospace Solutions has a device that utilizes just this type of technology:
"We would know where the aircraft has gone, where it is, and we would have information on what had happened in the meantime," [Flyht director Richard Haven] said. On a normal flight, the system would send updates every five to 10 minutes. It can be programmed to recognize when something is wrong, such as a deviation in flight path, and automatically begin streaming second-by-second data.
But the technology is expensive, about $100,000 per installation. However, Flyht officials say the service would save money over time. And other companies offer similar technology for less. Still, Tyler believes that the switch could be too costly too be practical, asking, "To have every aircraft streaming all date at every phase of the flight, can it be managed or would it simply overwhelm us?"
Better passenger screening
As details on the passengers and crew of MH370 emerged, onlookers were surprised to hear that two flyers boarded with false papers. Though those turned out to be, in all likelihood, innocent immigrants seeking asylum in Europe, the fact that they were able to board at all is cause for concern. Tyler says that responsibility falls with individual governments. "It is important to remember that airlines aren't border guards or policemen." He added, "Whether or not there is a security dimension to this tragedy, that two passengers could board an aircraft with fake passports rings alarm bells."
According to the Wall Street Journal, Malaysia has said that it will look into their airport safety practices:
Malaysian authorities have said they don't consult Interpol's database of 40.2 million lost or stolen passports on a regular basis during the passenger-boarding process, because the database would be too slow to work with Malaysian systems.
Interpol responded to the allegation by saying that its technology is up to par and that it is up to Malaysia to do its due diligence:
Malaysia’s decision not to consult Interpol’s stolen and lost travel documents database before allowing travelers to enter the country or board planes cannot be defended by falsely blaming technology or Interpol... If there is any responsibility or blame for this failure, it rests solely with Malaysia’s immigration department.
Mandating software upgrades
The Washington Post reported last month that if Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had upgraded — for just $10 — to a more comprehensive version of the system used to send out data to satellites, the search for the plane would be much easier. The Post's Ashley Halsey III and Scott Higham wrote on March 19:
The new information indicates that had the upgrade for a system called Swift been installed, it would have continued to send flight data by satellite even after signals from the plane’s transponder and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) went dead... Had the Swift system been upgraded to include the full package of applications, it could have sent information on engine performance, fuel consumption, speed, altitude and direction, regardless of whether the transponder and ACARS were working, [a satellite industry official] said.
According to WaPo, a number of major airlines opt for the slightly more expensive technology, which can also send information back to the plane's engine manufacturer (Rolls Royce, in the case of MH370). Malaysia Airlines defended its decision in a statement:
The need for SWIFT has never been mandated and all our aircraft have what is called the Aero H SATCOM communications systems. This installation is sufficient to meet all of MAS’s operational requirements and at the same time meets all international requirements that enable us to fly international airways.
The airline also argued that, "the statement that this $10 per flight upgrade will provide direction, speed and altitude in the event that the communications were deliberately shutoff from the aircraft is untrue." Still, it seems mandating a computer upgrade would be a simple way to increase the likelihood of finding a lost plane.
More international data-sharing
Part of the frustration with the search for MH370 has been fueled by the uneven, evasive way in which relevant information has been disseminated among the various country's along the plane's flight path. Thailand kept satellite information to itself for a week because, it said that nobody specifically asked for the information. Malaysia today released without comment a transcript of ground control's last communication with the flight, which revealed a different final statement from the crew than what was initially disclosed. Chinese families of passengers aboard the flight have reacted angrily against the Malaysian government, upset about their handling of the search.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald's Tom Allard, there is a reason nations haven't been especially forthcoming with information:
It takes time to identify and analyze an image taken from space. However, China and U.S., the globe's great geo-political rivals, aren't inclined to share secrets – air defenses and space-based surveillance hardware are some of the most sensitive military information around.
Allard concludes that in an increasingly interconnected world, cooperation between nations simply has to be better:
There were passengers from 15 nations on MH370. In a globalized world, air disasters will require more international co-operation. New protocols for handling sensitive material between nations are needed. There are lives to be saved in search and rescue operations, and speed is of the essence.