MH 370: Five years and counting

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Five years ago, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 went missing. We came know the call letters MH 370 and added words to our vocabulary such as pingers, 7th arc and Inmarsat. For months, the world was transfixed by news of the search. Private citizens scanned satellite images trying to find clues to help find the plane. Debris became the only hope, but when that washed ashore in Africa, it too failed to solve the mystery.

People were amazed and concerned when they learned there was less tracking on a $250 million plane with hundreds of souls on board than on their cell phones. They did not want to believe this was possible – that a plane and hundreds of people could vanish – when every day vehicles, persons, mobile devices, computers and other items are tracked and located by a thumb-sized chip.

Because of MH 370, airlines and governments learned of dangerous shortcomings, but most have not invested in change. Here is what has changed, and what has not.

Technology Cannot Help When It Is Not Implemented.

Just because the law allows an airline to do something doesn’t mean the airline should. The law allowed an airline to fly without tracking their aircraft – turning 777s into UFOs. Airlines saved money by scrimping on maintenance, including on important things like replacing batteries on emergency locator beacons or black box pingers. Airlines didn’t invest in continuous data download systems, which not only help an airline track its planes around the globe, but also allow for aircraft troubleshooting and trend analysis. Airlines ignored warnings about lithium ion battery fires and, to make extra money hauling cargo, loaded pallets of them into holds under the feet of human passengers – including on MH 370.

The same data that allows you to track an aircraft is critical to the identifying and quantifying risks in everyday aviation operations. Not only is this good practice, under U.S. regulations, it is mandated for Flight Operational Quality Assurance and Flight Data Analysis (FOQA/FDA). The MH 370 plane was able to send continuous performance data but the airline did not subscribe to the satellite data service that was necessary for transmission and receipt. If Malaysia Airlines subscribed to the data service, it would have known something was going wrong with the aircraft before the plane went missing.

Passengers’ cell phones on the plane had more communication capability than the aircraft and the air traffic control system. We are still waiting on governments to mandate installation of new aircraft tracking technology. Waiting on governments to mandate change means you are always behind. Government regulations usually follow, not lead, marketplace technology advances. The MH 370 investigators turned to looking for pilots’ or passengers’ cell phone hits because radar is a 75 year old system and no civilian air traffic control radar reached the South Indian Ocean and it still does not.

We can track aircraft in real time, but there is more than one methodology to do it. The question is whether we will adopt one global methodology or have a piecemeal system. We can track with satellite technology similar to Google Earth; we can track with the FAA system ADS-B; and in 2014, we could have tracked with the aircraft systems monitoring. Of course, the communication system on the aircraft had ceased sending and receiving communications, and MAS had not invested in the satellite subscription system to be able to communicate with its aircraft.

Data streaming should be continuous, but if airlines are intent on saving money on safety, the data must start streaming back to the airline at the first indication of trouble. Some factions are focusing on a black box that ejects from the plane as it is crashing. But that doesn’t address the challenge of searching, finding and retrieving the boxes, with the potential for damage and data loss. At least 25-hour data recording capability is required on new aircraft. This is a huge improvement but was already in place when the Lion Air plane went down in water in 2018. Even then, it took weeks to find one of the black boxes. If the seawater had breached the box, the enhanced recording time would have been for naught.

If the tracking technology had been in place on the MH 370 aircraft, it certainly would have made a difference in finding the plane. However, it may not have not made a difference in saving the lives of the persons on board. A hypoxia event caused by a rapid decompression, or an undetected lack of oxygen (like the Payne Stewart or Helios planes), or a fume and fire event caused by dangerous cargo and a fire (like the ValuJet crash) would likely not have been prevented. Real-time tracking would have made it possible to intercept the plane, but the intercepting aircraft could have only been spectator to the loss of the plane – similar to the Payne Stewart plane or the Helios plane. The only hope for saving the passengers in such a scenario would have been the continuous aircraft performance data downloads so the airline’s maintenance base would have known when the cascade of events started, possibly in time to warn the pilots to don oxygen masks, descend under 10,000 feet and turn back at the first aircraft irregularity.

The capability to remotely control planes exists; we all know that with the proliferation of drones (which, incidentally, outnumber traditional aircraft). No commercial passenger airline yet has the capability to remotely control its aircraft. Long ago, the FAA tested remotely piloted passenger aircraft, and the technology exists, but no one is comfortable with pilot overrides. For now, FAA regulations do not permit remotely piloted commercial passenger service. The Lion Air crash cemented that resistance to pilot overrides, when a Boeing 787 aircraft fought and overrode the pilot control, nosediving the airliner into the ocean.

Some Tried and True Practices Were Ignored.

Mental health screening, had it been in place, could likely have eliminated pilot suicide theories within days of the disappearance. Instead, unsupported pilot suicide speculation has persisted – 5 years and counting – without any evidence to support the theory. Other than the initial evaluation when a pilot is hired, most airlines do not continuously screen for mental health.

Air traffic control still operates the same way with old fashioned radar, but next year pilots will be required to check in more frequently with ATC. Before MH 370, aircraft over oceans were required to check in every 30 minutes, but by 2020, pilots will check in every 15 minutes.

Black boxes are still the same as when MH 370 went missing. Everyone thought MH 370 might be the last time nations would have to search sea beds and silt for flight data and cockpit voice recorders. No, it has happened many times since MH 370, most recently after the crash of Lion Air in Indonesia and the crash of Atlas Air in the U.S. Black Boxes are antique technology, well over 50 years old. Though they are of unparalleled importance in solving crash mysteries and improving air safety, it is time to have real time data streaming.

Most shocking perhaps was the 4-day delay by the Malaysian government in revealing MH 370 did not go down in the South China Sea where the search was conducted after the loss. Had ATC and the military immediately revealed the plane turned around and headed back across Malaysia, there would have been a chance to find the plane in the right location. Instead, crucial days were lost searching the wrong ocean.

Why Victims’ Families Should Be Included in Crash Investigations.

Both then and now, it is difficult to hold governments accountable. Not unlike the families of those lost on MH 370, our own NTSB has to beg for change just as it always has. The best way to improve government accountability would be to include victim family representation in the investigation party system. We pride ourselves on sunshine laws that open government operations to public scrutiny. The victims’ families arguably have the most interest in air crash investigations, yet they are excluded. The airlines, governments, manufacturers and pilots’ unions are represented, but not the lost passengers. Someone needs to be allowed to speak for the dead.

There is no justifiable reason for excluding victims’ families – they can follow the rules of an investigation just like everyone else. It is insulting to assume they cannot. By keeping the families of the victims out of the investigations, it leads to suspicion and distrust of the process, and harms the credibility of the findings. However, MH 370 was no different than any other investigation. The families were shut out of the 9/11 investigations and all other U.S. plane crash investigations. Pilot error is the probable cause in about three-quarters of the plane crashes, yet pilots are parties to the investigation. Passengers cannot cause crashes, but they are viewed as suspect, and excluded.

Emergency advance payments to passenger families must be improved. Now emergency payments to families in the aftermath of a crash are haphazard, unequal and sometimes difficult to receive. Airlines should make immediate generous payments to families and treat them evenly and with respect. In the U.S., the emergency payment is usually $25,000, but the amount is not mandated by law. Some airlines require families to present receipts for losses, medical bills and damages to get the emergency payments at all, and then await reimbursement. Some airlines attach stipulations to the emergency payments that the amount will be deducted from any recovery families receive if they sue the airline for their loss. Some airlines try to give much smaller amounts, or nothing at all. How they treat – or rather, mistreat – the families of air crashes sets the tone for the credibility of the investigation. If crash families are treated poorly or with disrespect after a crash, they may mistrust the investigation (from which they are excluded) and may be more likely to discredit the investigation findings (which the crashing airline helped craft as an investigation party).

In the aftermath of the disappearance of MH 370, Malaysia passed a law decreeing that Malaysia Airlines (MAS) ceased to exist. Act 765 provided that the MAS, which flew MH 370, had also vanished. The government gave all the assets to a new Malaysia Airlines (MAB), but decreed in Act 765 that the new airline was not a successor corporation and could not be sued. The families had to chase insurance. But Malaysia did not invent this legal trick. After 9/11/01, the U.S. government passed laws stating neither airline flying the crashed planes could be held financially accountable for their lax security that made 9/11 possible. The U.S. government tried to force all the 9/11/01 victims into the Victims Compensation Fund. Families choosing to file suit were forbidden to collect anything from the airlines – they could only collect from insurance policies, even though airlines ran the checkpoints on 9/11/01. There was no TSA. The trend continues – after Lion Air, victims’ families were told they could not sue the airline, at least not in Indonesia.

Planes have disappeared and will continue to disappear after MH 370, including one this year off the coast of South Carolina. But, when smaller planes disappear they don’t make the national or international news, so it seems like planes are not still disappearing. They are. Aircraft will continue to be lost until ADS-B and satellite based communication systems are mandated for all aircraft, making them visible, identifiable and trackable both in the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System and around the globe.  The resistance is of course financial – operators want the government to pay for the equipment. If you can afford a plane, should you be able to afford to make it visible in the air traffic control system. After all, you are being allowed to fly in sky you don’t own and you are being directed by ATC paid for by all of us. When you go missing, we all pay to go find you. That was decided after TWA 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off New York back in 1996. The NTSB wanted TWA to pay for the seabed search and recovery; TWA declined.

The Industry Has a Responsibility to Act.

The intrigue and controversy concerning MH 370 will continue until the mystery of the missing plane is solved. But what does not have to remain mysterious and controversial are the needed changes. All aircraft must be capable of being tracked no matter where above the land or seas they fly. It is just as dangerous to go missing over New York City or a national park as it is to go missing over the Indian Ocean—as prior plane crashes in each of these locations has sadly proven. Different technologies are required to accomplish those goals, but all these technologies are available now. Black boxes helped improve aviation safety for more than half a century, but the technology has long been surpassed by data streaming, whether continuous for the benefit of aircraft performance trouble shooting and trend analysis, or activated when the plane experiences difficulty.

And finally and perhaps most importantly, it is time for an international standard for the treatment of persons injured in air accidents and families of air crash victims. Injured and victim families need to be included in air crash investigations so they can have trust and confidence in the findings and recommendations. In the aftermath of a plane crash they should have immediate access to no-strings-attached emergency funds promptly provided by the airline to enable the families to travel to the investigation, to join loved ones, for medical attention and in some cases for burials and memorial services. Nations should never change the law in the aftermath of an aviation disaster to seek to obstruct access to justice and rights of the injured or dead. Rather than change laws to make justice more elusive in the aftermath of accidents, the aviation nations of the world, including the U.S., should be proactive in changing laws and aviation regulations to make transportation safer and more secure so that in time, disasters, too, will disappear.