Behind The Headlines

Published: Sunday April 13, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday April 13, 2014 MYT 9:03:06 AM

See the ocean as half-full

Besides sorrow and loss, the terrible tragedy that befell Flight MH370 can still be turned into offering valuable lessons for the future.

EVEN before how Flight MH370 had abruptly vanished could be known, nearly every aspect of its disappearance had become unprecedented.

Not only is the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 the most technologically advanced passenger aircraft to be so tragically lost, MH370 has also produced the most baffling and agonising mystery in aviation history.

The search has involved more than two dozen countries using state-of-the-art technology in path-breaking ways, besides a global community of Netizens poring over any discernible clue in every conceivable interpretation.

Yet, all of that produced far more questions than answers, amid a raw outpouring of anguish among the family members of all those on board.

The hunt for the aircraft has occasioned first-ever applications of Nasa and Inmarsat satellite capacities. Several frustrating turns, first concerning its flight path and then its last known location, continue to frustrate investigators even after the consensus had moved to the world’s most desolate expanse in the southern Indian Ocean.

Besides the “external logistics” of coordinating inputs from 26 countries, Malaysia had the excruciating task of managing the “internal logistics” of satisfying constant demands for details and updates from the media, the relatives, and the general public everywhere.

And all that was constrained by the slow, modified trickle of strategic data from the jealously guarded security assets of participating governments and the scarcity of reliable and corroborated information.

From just about any angle, the scale of this tragedy has been mammoth – and continues to grow.

The least that can be done is to make it pay, by ensuring that nothing of the sort ever happens again.

Thus far, the kinds of changes considered for standard operating procedures (SOPs) have largely been piecemeal band-aid solutions: hooking up to Interpol’s database of lost passports (necessary, but insufficient), extending the duration of black box recordings beyond the last two hours, and prolonging the battery life of the flight recorders to emit signals beyond 30 days.

Only recently has the US National Transportation Safety Board considered in-flight streaming of black box data. Much more can and should be done even with current technology, modest budgets and limited modifications to present arrangements.

Here are a dozen such measures that are not rocket science to devise, install or operate, and for which costs cannot be an excuse not to invest in.

1. Besides streaming black box data to ground control, store flight data on a cloud for ready access. It is ludicrous that despite the advances in ICT, vital flight recorder data is stored only in black boxes located only in aircraft, defeating the primary purpose of finding stricken vessels.

After a computer engineer was aghast that cloud storage is still not routine practice in the 21st century, Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Minister thought aloud that possibility.

2. Install CCTV cameras in cabins and cockpits to stream and record. Besides helping investigations, this is also a real-time deterrent against terrorism, hijackings and crew misconduct as well as useful source material for training videos.

Some luxury cars already come with up to three factory-fitted CCTV cameras. When cellphones linked to security cameras can check on homes even when the owners are abroad, what is so difficult for airlines to do so on their aircraft?

3. Equip the bottoms of the fuselage and wings with airbags for emergency landings, to help cushion impact and serve as floats on water. Rarely do aircraft nosedive in crashes.

High-performance cars capable of speeds exceeding 300kph routinely install airbags, so aircraft with far more passengers need them even more in emergency landings.

4. Barcode flights with their own unique GPS identity for real time tracking. Since the lower-stakes courier service industry already does so routinely, airlines should do no less.

5. Provide this (4) tracking facility to family and friends of passengers. Commercial airlines owe it to their customers to do at least as much as courier agencies that transport packages.

6. Install an auto alert triggered by unplanned changes in the flight path to inform departing and/or arrival airports. Immediate radio contact should then be established for the pilot to explain the unscheduled change of course to ground control.

7. Place emergency buttons in the cabin for passengers and crew to instantly alert ground control during untoward incidents, in case the pilots are incapacitated or cockpit systems fail. A microphone with each emergency button would help relay details of the problem.

8. Make the GPS emergency locator emit signals indefinitely until the black box is found and the signal is switched off. So long as the aircraft is not found, any signal emitted would be a part of the solution rather than a problem.

9. Include the identities of convicted terrorists, hijackers and passengers with violent in-flight records in Interpol’s database for airport or airline authorities to access and evaluate. This provides a further level of security and an added resource when scouring passenger manifests for suspects.

10. Make it an SOP for the airborne “queue” of aircraft that have just taken off, are cruising or preparing to land that each pilot identifies his flight and describes its condition to the pilot of the flight immediately behind – and gives an immediate update if problems arise.

11. Improve routine communication between civilian and military radar operators as another SOP. If the military’s primary radar operation suspects in-flight mishap or mischief of a passenger aircraft under radar, immediate contact with the civilian radar operation must be established to clear the situation.

12. Transform joint military exercises with a component of search-and-rescue (SAR) operations into SAR exercises with an element of military drills. SAR operations are more frequent than skirmishes or wars, with no less urgency, and are more constructive, inclusive and encouraging.

The search for MH370 has seen an impressive array of countries collaborating closely, including regional rivals and potential adversaries.

Such coordination, when institutionalised, is a confidence-building measure to reduce tension and suspicions while developing trust and further cooperation.

Boeing’s “uninterruptible autopilot” idea, in which ground control takes over piloting in emergencies, has obvious weaknesses like hackers hijacking the aircraft.

The above measures are relatively free of such concerns.

These measures are affordable, doable and will contribute significantly to passenger confidence and airline industry credibility.

The familiar industry complaint of additional cost, often an excuse for apathy and indifference, must be re-examined in recalibrating customer care and passenger welfare.

Undoubtedly, other measures can be explored and adopted.

Technology may also allow passengers to use their cellphones without interfering with flight control.

Governments and airlines must seriously consider all these possibilities for the sake of all airline passengers post-MH370.

Airlines that offer more security features would be more marketable and thus become more competitive.

But while market forces can help, industry requirements and government regulations must still act to ensure due compliance.

Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines are inadvertently the focus of world attention on flight security.

One way to rebound positively from this unfortunate experience, which could easily have struck any other country or airline, is to now lead the world in airline safety regulations and best practices.

Malaysia has the capacity for it. This could also be the most appropriate way to honour the memory of all those on board MH370.

> Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, MH370, radar

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