Skip to content

Aviation Lessons Learned

​REMEMBER THREE MILE ISLAND? That partial nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979 transformed nuclear safety. Then, 22 years later, the September 11 attacks led to revamped homeland security practices. In the future, the world may look back at the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and the loss of its 239 crew members and passengers as an event that triggered, or at least hastened, key aviation safety reforms.

While aviation safety reform is an ongoing endeavor, recent progress has been relatively slow, mainly due to cost. “The pushback is usually financial. There’s always a tremendous cost, and transportation is an industry that always teeters from profitability to unprofitability,” says international travel risk expert John Rose. A former travel program director for the U.S. Department of Defense and ex-president of TravelGuard Assist, Rose is now COO of iJet, an intelligence-based risk management company that often services the travel industry.

But an event like the MH370 accident, “unprecedented in recent times,” can alter this equation, Rose says. With the intense media focus—Rose points to the days and weeks after the accident where the CNN news Web site contained numerous Malaysia Airlines-related stories—flight safety could become top of mind for many travelers, to the point where some would consider not flying if improvements are not made. “The media focus pushes consumer awareness to the point where consumers start demanding [changes],” he says. “At that point, the industry would see the return on investment differently.”

Media scrutiny also results in pressure put on lawmakers to change safety regulations, which can lead to government action. If critical mass is reached, government leaders could decide that a safety upgrade is important enough to warrant public financial support. “If not [direct] government funding, some sort of government subsidy,” Rose says.

No matter what happens in terms of aviation safety changes, experts and industry groups say there are many lessons to be learned from the MH370 tragedy. Calls for change are coming from various quarters.

The Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), is advocating for new technological standards for the industry. “Technology that exists today can pinpoint the location of aircraft in near real time and, in this day and age, it is unacceptable that the location of the aircraft is unknown,” the group said in a statement issued in April, about a month after the plane was lost.

ALPA wants to see the use of satellite surveillance of aircraft become standard practice in the industry. In particular, it is advocating for the widespread use of Automatic Dependent Surveillance- Broadcast (ADS-B) technology, which would upgrade the global commercial aircraft monitoring system.

Currently, most aircraft monitoring is conducted through land-based radar. But radar covers less than half the planet, and there are huge gaps over the oceans and desert. The current land-based radar system, called the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, is supported by a secondary plane-based radar system, which transmits the identity, position, and height when interrogated or “pinged” by ground-based air traffic control systems. However, this secondary radar, known as the transponder, can be disabled by mechanical failure or shut down from the cockpit, which appears to have been the case with flight MH370.

ADS-B would convert this radar-based monitoring system to a satellite-based one. ADS-B uses GPS signals and aircraft avionics to transmit the aircraft’s location to ground receivers, which in turn transmit that information to controller screens and cockpit displays on the aircraft. In this way, pilots and crew are able to see what air traffic controllers see on the ground.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which is trying to push forward on the technology, will require the use of ADS-B systems by aircraft in most classes of U.S. airspace by January 2020. But the industry has been somewhat slow in adopting the system.

The call for better use of aviation technology is being echoed by the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF). “Satellite communications, navigation, and surveillance systems also represent efficient ways of tracking aircraft, especially over water,” says Kenneth Hylander, FSF’s outgoing acting president and CEO. “Given existing technology, we simply should not be losing contact with aircraft for unknown reasons.”

FSF has also called on the commercial aviation industry and national civil aviation authorities to gather for an international symposium on the need to incorporate better in-flight aircraft monitoring and communications systems to enhance location tracking. “It’s time for… a knowledgeable, responsible, professional dialogue to begin to examine technological options for practical tracking of aircraft,” according to Hylander.

The MH370 accident has also spurred considerable criticism of another aspect of aviation—black box technology. A plane’s flight recorder, known as its black box, is actually an orange-colored box, with two units: a cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder. The flight data recorder records the plane’s altitude, airspeed, direction, and other operating conditions, and it can monitor actions such as wing flap movement and fuel gauge changes. Through this data, officials can reconstruct how a plane was handling shortly before a crash.

However, the MH370 flight’s disappearance exposed many of the limitations of current black box technology. If a plane crashes in the ocean, finding the black box can be next to impossible. In deep water, the black box’s signal has a range of as little as 10 nautical miles and it runs out in 30 days. Moreover, the cockpit recorder component of the black box only records about two hours of cockpit conversation, set on a loop. If a plane is hijacked, or if the pilot loses consciousness, the two hours that are recorded may not capture critical activities in the cockpit.

In the wake of the MH370 accident, some experts have called for black box data to be streamed to ground locations during a flight, so it is not lost in a crash. To Rose, black box technology is the area of aviation safety that is most likely to improve because of the accident. “It’s absolutely essential, and it’s going to happen,” he says. Rose believes this, he says, because there is significant public awareness of the importance of the black box. “Plane crashes are infrequent, but if you ask people on the street, they know what a black box is,” he says.

Finally, since MH370 was an international flight—from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China—that hosted passengers from 15 nations, the ensuing investigation was complicated and suffered from poor international cooperation. In particular, several of the countries involved in searching for the aircraft did not release key information in a timely fashion.

For example, Thailand delayed sharing its knowledge that it had picked up MH370 on its radar. China took several days to release footage of debris in the South China Sea, and Australia waited several days to reveal images of flotsam in the Indian Ocean. Malaysia was also slow in disclosing satellite information.

As a result, ALPA is also calling for better communication, and openness, during a crash investigation. “We also urge the international aviation community to stress the importance of cooperation and complete transparency during an investigation, as well as the open disclosure of all facts with proper context developed during the course of an investigation with relevant stakeholders,” ALPA said. “Following this process will mitigate the urge for speculation, thereby preventing valuable time and resources being diverted from the fact-finding portion of the investigation.”

In the end, Rose says that he is optimistic that new aviation safety and security measures will arise in the wake of the MH370 accident—not solely because of the Malaysian flight itself, but because it will serve as a tipping point for reforms that were already being pushed. “I think you will see change,” Rose says. “But some of it was already coming.”