Flight 370: Low-tech safeguards in high-tech era

The News TribuneMarch 14, 2014 

Twenty-first century information technology almost surpasses the imagination. But no technology can beat the human factor: For it to work, you’ve got to use it.

The baffling disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 last Saturday was almost a matter of not flipping a switch.

Existing off-the-shelf telecommunications, avionics and computer systems could have quickly pinpointed the area where the jet went down with its 239 passengers and crew. An ordinary database maintained by Interpol could have flagged two Iranian passengers who boarded with stolen passports.

Because Malaysia Airlines didn’t use the available technology, an armada of vessels and aircraft had to be deployed to look for debris on expanses of ocean as large as the state of Indiana. Searchers have been eyeballing the water surface and lowering listening devices under the waves to find the telltale ping of the jet’s black boxes. It looks like a hunt for a World War II U-boat.

What if some of the people aboard Flight 370 had survived — but were in need of immediate help?

What if they were victims of a crime that might have been prevented? Malaysia — like most other countries — doesn’t bother to check the Interpol database. This creates a big opening for terrorists with false IDs.

U.S. international airports have systems that automatically check passport numbers against the database. Only a few other nations, including Great Britain, employ the safeguard. Because most countries don’t, 1 billion boardings last year went unchecked, according to Interpol.

The lack of location data from Flight 370 is especially frustrating. Its pilots were reportedly in frequent contact with ground controllers after takeoff. Suddenly they — and the plane’s transponder — went silent over the South China Sea.

Again, the United States is doing it right. Like many countries, it requires that its airliners be equipped with emergency locator transmitters, which guide the searchers to a downed aircraft. But many countries don’t. American passengers — and everyone else, for that matter — run needless risks when they must fly on the jets of lax nations.

Another technology — “automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast” — is just arriving. It links an aircraft’s avionics to satellites, continually broadcasting the plane’s location, speed, altitude and direction to ground stations and other planes.

The United States and Europe created ADS-B and will be adopting it over the next five years. If other nations don’t, it’s going to be increasingly obvious that they’ve economized on safety.

All these systems have a price tag. But the cost of, say, connections to Interpol or emergency locator transmitters are a small fraction of the overall cost of commercial flight. Flight 370’s Boeing 777-200ER, for example, sells for $261.5 million. Emergency signals and anti-terror measures are not the place to save money.

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