On March 24, the Malaysian Prime Minister confirmed that the flight MH370 ended in the southern corner of the Indian Ocean and none of the passengers on board had survived. The southern part of the Indian Ocean is at a remote corner of the world and it is quite possible that the flight’s data recorder can never be found. Therefore, what has actually happened to the Malaysian aircraft will remain a mystery. Air France flight 447 plunged into the water in the mid-Atlantic and it took two years and many millions of dollars to locate the plane’s black box from the ocean bed. It appears that this is similar.
We are living in a world where technology is often a solution to most of our problems. Therefore, it is hard to believe that this time it cannot reconnect the lost flight passengers with their families or pinpoint the location of the aircraft remains.
The airlines use satellites to provide Wi-Fi to their passengers. Therefore, we can safely assume that roughly 50 people of the 239 travelers are using a Smartphone inside the Boeing777. There are several cell towers on ground the signals from which can go up to miles. The Smartphones in the air can connect with these towers on the ground. As soon as you read this, you must have rushed to conclude that the people on board in Malaysian airline must be connected with cell towers on ground. Then why it is not possible to find the aircraft? Technology too has some kind of limitations.
The Malaysian flight was at the height of 35,000ft when it disappeared. It is far beyond the range of cell-tower connectivity. If you follow the flight path of MH370, you will soon discover that most of the areas the flight covered are sparsely populated with limited number of cell-towers. Moreover, there are no towers on the ocean. Even if we assume that the airline was flying low enough to be within cell coverage, the flight passengers must not able to hold on a signal. This might be because of the jet speed.
Radars to track aircrafts
When cell-phone connectivity was not working, what has happened to the radar which monitors the flight’s progress? As per the standard international practice two radar systems are used to monitor airspace: primary and secondary. The primary radar sends out electromagnetic wave that bounce back if there is any object on its way. The primary radar sends back signals even if the plane’s transponder is not functioning. Secondary radar also sends electromagnetic waves which the transponder of the plane picks up and provides information like its speed, altitude and bearing.
Every modern flight has a transponder located at its nose that automatically picks up an interrogating message from the radar station and transfers a four digit code. From the successive transmissions of codes, the radar stations establish the identity, speed, and direction of specific flight. If the jets are 150 miles out in the sea, the radar coverage fades and at that moment the air crew remains connected with traffic control station with the help of high frequency digital messaging system which is known as Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). When the pilots don’t report their position from any reason to the air traffic control stations, their location will remain unknown. Then, how did the Malaysian airlines vanish?
Air traffic control screen lost contact with the plane as the transponder stopped when the flight entered Vietnamese airspace. The last definite location of the aircraft tracked by the radar shows that it is flying north east across the Gulf of Thailand. The exact reason why the transponder stopped is not clear. Is it possible that somebody has turned off the transponder of the plane? But, the radio messages last received do not imply any kind of foul play.
The radio message that air traffic control last received from the airline is “Alright, Goodnight“. The message hinted that everything was perfect on board. Hence, it is still unknown how the flight 370’s transponder stopped functioning and why the communication broke down.
In the age of global cellular data connectivity, Wi-Fi connections, and orbiting space stations, why the major carriers continue to rely on old technologies? When cloud technology is so much in vogue at present, why the flight data cannot be streamed in real time?
Improvements in airline tracking system
Long before the Malaysian airline disappeared on March 8, the airline industry had tools to follow flights and stream data in real time from the flight recorders. There are several reasons of which the most prominent are cost and the infrequent plane accidents for which the major jets and the flight regulators did not adopt them.
The idea of tracking airlines using black boxes that can transmit their location via satellite has been there for years, but gained attention when Air France lost in Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Military planes already use flight data recorder that ejects parachute when the airline crashes. The emitted satellite signal immediately conveys the location and identity of the aircraft. Bit adding such a system on commercial jet will mean an expensive redesign. Is the expense more than the lives of people that can be saved if there is a proper system on board?
The loss of Malaysian flight pressed the need for improved flight recorders that can transmit real time data via satellite. But, regulators argued that there are thousands of flights and streaming the information from each of them will pose technical challenges. It will be expensive at the same time. FLYHT, a Canadian company provides such streaming services. According to Richard Hayden, the director of FLYHT, the jets’ black boxes can transfer data only in unusual situations like when the engines overheat or the flights deviate from their paths. In such scenario, the costs can be kept under control.
The world has experienced the tragic loss of two jumbo jets in succession. Can we afford to lose another? It is high time to concentrate on passengers’ safety instead of trying to make them happy with uninterrupted entertainment options.