Briefing | opinion

The most stunning thing about MH370 remains that 239 people on a $300m plane simply vanished in the data age

(Photo by Chris Jung/NurPhoto via Getty Images)A little girl holds a balloon with the name of the missing Malaysia Airlines ill-fated flight MH370 at a memorial event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on March 04, 2017.
  • We live in an era where everything from music to photos are stored “in the cloud”, yet the crucial data from a plane that fell from actual clouds most likely sits in an unknown location at the bottom of the ocean.
  • Airline passengers have never been under more scrutiny prior to boarding a plane, yet what happens aboard the aircraft once airborne remains private in a manner unlike any other form of public transport.
  • Amid errors made by air traffic controllers as MH370 inexplicably changed course, the fact that with today’s technology it’s still possible to make a $300 million asset “disappear” is inexcusable for the aviation industry.

The next time your nail clippers are confiscated at the airport in the name of security, just remember that if you’d used them to then hijack a plane, it’s entirely possible authorities would be absolutely clueless about what you did and how it happened.

That’s what’s at the core of the investigation into the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 and the unexplained deaths of 239 people.

The final-but-not-final report into the vanished plane, released on Monday by Malaysian authorities, brings little comfort to the still grieving families of those lost.

It reveals little we didn’t already know. Like the Australian report into the search for MH370, released 10 months ago, it concludes that without the fuselage, any chance of discovering what happened is impossible.

The report also details a litany of failures by both air traffic controllers — who as a group are on the front line of tracking the global movements of nearly four billion people around the globe annually — as well as the technology.

And that’s the truly gobsmacking part.

How is it that, in an era when Facebook knows you might be pregnant and sends you baby ads, air traffic controllers can lose a plane without noticing or caring?

How is it that at a time when governments and police push for increasingly intrusive monitoring of its citizenry – be it the Australian government wanting your internet browsing history or Beijing’s 200 million security cameras watching its populace – that a $3 trillion industry can’t keep track of its fleet?

A world awash with data

Photo: Leading Seaman Justin BrownThe search for MH370.

There are call centres that know when employees go to the toilet and for how long. Uber turned watching your ride arrive into part of the journey. You can find your iPhone when it’s lost. Most sports broadcasts can tell you exactly where a player has been on the field during a match. We are only a few years away from practically every car knowing where it is on the face of the earth.

Yet, airlines can buy a $300 million asset carrying hundreds of people and if someone wants to make it disappear, they can.

The fact that this is a possibility is an oversight so large as to stray into negligence by the airline industry and all those charged with keeping the skies safe.

It’s one thing to opt out of My Health Records. It’s something else to be able to switch off a plane so that 4.5 years and more than $200 million spend searching for MH370 later, we’re still none the wiser about what, where, how or why.

For 15 years after September 11, for all the technology available, the main in-air reforms were stronger cockpit doors and random sky marshals — analogue solutions in a digital era.

It wasn’t until the second anniversary of the disappearance of MH370 in 2016 that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) announced reforms in response, to track planes in real time.

Tracking devices will transmit a plane’s location at least once a minute. ICAO also extended the duration of cockpit voice recordings.

But the changes seem to be the minimum necessary and it will take until 2021 before the measures are fully implemented.

On so many other fronts monitoring seems to be ahead of the airline industry.

Catch a bus or train and chances are there’ll be video footage of it. You can even buy a $1000 drone that will return to its starting point if things start to go awry.

Trains, incidentally, have a dead man’s switch to intervene and prevent disaster if something goes wrong with the driver. They’re on a range of machinery – even some planes to guard against hypoxia (a lack of oxygen).

If you can watch someone sleeping on Big Brother for hours on end, why can’t what happens in the cockpit where 2-3 people are responsible for the lives of up to 500 others be discretely monitored just in case?

Airlines rushing to allow passengers to answer emails and post on Instagram mid-flight can surely find room for higher purposes in the name of safety.

“Without the benefit of the examination of the aircraft wreckage and recorded flight data information, the investigation was unable to identify any plausible aircraft or systems failure mode that would lead to the observed systems deactivation, diversion from the filed flight plan route and the subsequent flight path taken by the aircraft,” the Malaysian report says.

For all the surveillance, intervention and safety measures elsewhere, planes still appear to operate in a what-happens-on-tour-stays-on-tour mentality – unless of course the passengers whip out their smartphones to record security dragging some hapless traveller off an overbooked flight.

In a world awash with data, the astonishing thing about MH370 is how little data there actually is. For more than four years, the search for the plane has been based on best guesstimates from scientific modelling and hunches.

One of the shocking details in the Malaysia report involves the plane’s four emergency locator transmitters (ELTs).

They’re a radio beacon – a mandatory safety measure – designed transmit digital distress signals to help find a plane, but generally have to be activated by the crew.

But the problem with ELTs is they don’t work when submerged. When 71% of the planet is covered in water – a key reason why fly rather than jumping on high-speed trains – this is a major shortcoming.

In fact the report reviewed 30 years of accident records and concluded they are largely ineffective since they were activated in just 39 of 114 incidents.

“This implies that of the total accidents in which ELTs were carried, only about 34% of the ELTs operated effectively,” the report says.

No wonder so many conspiracy theories – addressed and dismissed in the report – have thrived.

The ATC failure

Photo by Faris Hadziq/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesA girl posing with a drawing at an MH370 remembrance event in Kuala Lumpur this year.

For all the procedures and policies in place, Malaysian air traffic controllers failed to implement or ignored them on six occasions, the report concluded. This resulted in critical delays to the search for MH370. The Malaysian safety report also pointed the finger at controllers in Vietnam.

The Kuala Lumpur controllers handed tracking of MH370 over to Ho Chi Minh air traffic control three minutes early, and then didn’t alert anyone when the Vietnamese couldn’t contact the plane after five minutes.

The Malaysians didn’t check where the plane might be with other air traffic authorities after it disappeared off their radar, relying instead on flight information from the airline. They didn’t tell Royal Malaysian Air Force joint air traffic centre the plane was missing.

Contact was lost over the Gulf of Thailand and the plane turned back. Criticially, the report concluded this had to be done manually by someone on board the plane. It changed course two more times while heading towards the southern Indian Ocean. Investigators don’t know if these turns were executed manually or under autopilot.

Military radar tracked the plane to a waypoint named MEKAR, north of Banda Aceh on Indonesia’s western tip. It disappeared at 02:22 Malaysian time, around 80 minutes into the flight, 10 nautical miles west of that point.

The military knew it was MH370 “based on its track behaviour, characteristics and constant/continuous track pattern/trend”, the report says, but the fact that it was so wildly off course did not appear to raise any alarms (and as mentioned earlier, KL controllers didn’t tell them they’d lost the plane).

“The Military did not pursue to intercept the aircraft since it was ‘friendly’ and did not pose any threat to national airspace security, integrity and sovereignty,” the report says.

After that, the closest clue anyone has about MH370’s location is a series of satellite log-on “handshakes” during the flight, but they confirm little other than the fact that the plane was still airbone.

So here we find ourselves, clueless about the fate of 239 people, after a four-year search of more than 200,000km² of the Indian Ocean seabed.

After being harangued by governments for years about how we, as passengers, need to surrender our privacy and nail files in the name of a greater good to remain safe in the skies, the fact that MH370 can fly through an enormous hole of ignorance in the sky without authorities noticing shames everyone.

Apologies and condolences accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders offers no comfort to those who’ve lost family and friends.

The Malaysian report offers a range recommendations to improve air safety.

Malaysia’s transport minister has already hinted that the air traffic controllers responsible for failures in procedure may face prosecution.

It’s now up to the airline industry to fix this so the MH370 saga cannot be repeated again.

* This is an opinion column.

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