THE BLOG

Missing Flight MH370 - Time for Passenger Jets to be in Constant, not Occasional, Contact

10/08/2015 10:00 BST | Updated 06/08/2016 10:59 BST

The world is more transfixed by the loss of Flight MH370 than any other recent aviation disaster; but not so much because we want to know why, as where.

Our fear of being lost, not just as individuals but to each other, drives global anxiety over its fate. The Boeing 777 vanished in March last year, untracked for perhaps hours by any electronic device save for an hourly housekeeping handshake with the Inmarsat satellite network.

The particular chill of its disappearance into the Indian Ocean (probably) is not the awful loss of life, or fear of a technical failure from which we need to learn. It is that in our always on, plugged in, satellite tracked age, a passenger jet could be unobserved.

We rationalise the increasingly rare instances of technical failure on flights, and even random acts of terror and madness. The destruction of Flight MH17, seemingly shot down by a rocket over Ukraine just months after its sister flight disappeared, has already slipped from international consciousness; filed and forgotten as we board our holiday and business flights.

But not MH370. The only difference between the two tragedies is that even if we still argue over the 'why' with MH17, we know the answer to 'where'. Its flight and fate were visible.

Whatever the debris found on Reunion Island tell us about MH370, it still cannot answer one simple, gnawing question: Where is it?

So we will keep, obsessively, hunting for the hull, just as we do for signs of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra, nearly 80 years after it vanished somewhere over the Pacific.

It is no comfort to know that MH370 itself was probably not lost at all from the pilot's perspective. What chills is that somebody switched off any way for it not to be lost to everyone else.

Because of what we half know and surmise, it is right not to focus too much on the 'why' question, at least from a technical standpoint. The aviation industry is already one of the safest, and getting safer. Most incidents are now down to human error.

In 2013 there were just 265 deaths in 29 major airline accidents around the entire world. This compares with the 1970s when there were years with more than 2,000 lives lost.

Any major flaws to the Boeing 777 aircraft would have been evident elsewhere with thousands of hours flown, not to mention computer modelling before the first flight.

The best answer for the aviation sector is to accept that the lessons from MH370 are not going to be technical, but psychological. The industry needs to challenge its resistance to the constant tracking of aircraft.

Perhaps the failure to publicly discuss this most obvious of corrective steps is due to habit, which focuses after air accidents on gathering technical data to ensure no repeats.

This approach to investigation has been a mainstay of the amazing growth in aircraft safety over the past 60 years; something which began as it went on, with meticulous simulation and forensic analysis.

Data is rightly held sacred, and the quest for it paramount. Flight data and cockpit voice recorders are standard, with the 'black box' sought as an article of faith whenever an accident occurs.

But pilots should also abide by the laws of the air, and these include strict rules about reporting position and responding to communications. Constant reporting is not always necessary. What is important is the rules are followed; the pilot of MH370 apparently did not follow the rules.

This is why the industry response to the loss has been measured: At some intuitive level, part of the explanation is already clearly human, not technical.

The story of MH370 is really about communication, and the comfort constant contact gives of a life in control. There may well be no operational need for it, but that is not the point: Travellers want it.

This will cost money and pose engineering and security challenges, but that may be a small price to pay for advancing levels of reassurance. People are asking quite reasonably why aircraft in the skies are not as permanently online as most of us are on the ground.