The United Nations should study whether automatic tracking of aircraft is merited, the Malaysian Transport Ministry says in its preliminary report into the disappearance of Flight MH 370, a Beijing-bound Boeing 777 that vanished seven weeks ago.
“There have now been two occasions during the last five years when large commercial air transport aircraft have gone missing and their last position was not accurately known,” said the Transport Ministry, which was formally the lead investigation agency because the aircraft was registered in Malaysia.
The other flight, Air France 447, crashed in mid-Atlantic in 2009 when its pilots lost control of a perfectly flyable Airbus A-330 and then argued among themselves for minutes as to whether the nose was pointed up or down as they plummeted toward the sea.
In fact, Air France, like many airlines, paid for automatic tracking and reporting by satellite of its aircraft and the last such signal from AF447 came only six minutes before the pilots lost control. No one noticed the flight had gone missing for hours until it failed to contact air traffic control.
An automatic system – of the kind suggested by Malaysia – already exists. It is called ACARS, for Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. Most airlines use it for routine communications, especially to report maintenance issues so that they can be addressed at the next landing. However, ACARS can report via radio, which is used over land, or, at much greater expense, via satellite on long sectors such as transoceanic flights where there is no radio coverage.
Malaysia Airlines used ACARS, but it was one of the systems that was turned off – apparently deliberately by someone in the cockpit with a detailed knowledge of the Boeing 777’s systems, shortly after one of the pilots made a routine “hand-off” radio call to Malaysian air traffic control.
The recommendation from Malaysia to the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) asks it to “examine the safety benefits of introducing a standard for real-time tracking of commercial air transport aircraft.”
While the technology already exists, the communications costs could be significant. So too would be the monitoring required to notice the absence of an expected report and thus alert search and rescue. With more than 100,000 commercial flights daily, any system that would provide a useful start point for searching would probably require reporting every minute or two, creating a vast amount of data. Simply sorting out false alarms could be very expensive.
Equally problematic would be whether a system could be designed so that pilots could not turn it off. Modern aircraft design recognizes fire as perhaps the greatest threat inflight, so pilots can turn off or depower all systems to isolate shorts or malfunctions. Someone on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, not only turned off the ACARS but also the transponder – a device that broadcasts the flight’s identifier, speed, altitude and heading when interrogated by special air traffic control radars.
Even if an IACO study concluded that real-time, automatic, tracking was worthwhile, it would be up to individual nations to mandate it and require airlines to use it.
The report released Thursday was the required preliminary report due within 30 days of the crash. Although it was dated April 9, it was made public only Thursday.
Also Thursday, Malaysia Airlines advised relatives of passengers who were aboard Flight 370 to move out of hotels and return home to wait for news on the search.
Since the Boeing 777 disappeared on March 8, the airline has been putting the relatives up in hotels, where they have been briefed on the search. But the airline said in a statement Thursday that it would close its family assistance centres around the world by May 7, and that the families should receive search updates from “the comfort of their own homes.”
The airline said it would establish family support centres in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, and that it would keep in close touch with the relatives through means including phone calls and meetings.
Malaysia Airlines also said it would soon make advanced compensation payments to the relatives.
Searchers have already spent tens of millions of dollars looking for the missing aircraft, believed to be someone in the South Indian Ocean about 1,500 kilometres off Australia’s west coast in some of the most remote waters on Earth.
That location was derived from an hourly series of “handshakes” between the Boeing 777 satellite communications dome and an Inmarsat satellite in geostationary orbit. Those “handshakes” continued even after the ACARS system had been switched off, just as a cellphone will keep track of nearby towers even if it has no data to send or receive.
Weeks of searching with an autonomous submersible provided by the U.S. Navy failed to find any wreckage on the sea bottom despite the detection of what was believed to be fading locator signals from the aircraft’s flight recorders. Those battery-powered beacons fade after about a month.
Mostly the report confirmed previously known information, including that the flight had abruptly changed direction after it failed to check in with the next air traffic control zone and after the systems that allow for tracking and reporting had been turned off.
It also confirmed that military radar tracked a plane as it turned in a westerly direction across the Malay Peninsula but took no action because the unidentified plane was deemed “friendly.” However, it did not explain why Flight 370 had been categorized as friendly even through its transponder was switched off.
Eventually the flight crashed, apparently after nearly seven hours of flight, when it ran out of fuel.
With a report from Associated Press.