In the mysterious case of Malaysia Flight 370 there are really two vanishing acts. The first was by the Boeing 777 and the second was by the leadership of the world’s aviation industry.
In the U.S. a faulty ignition switch in General Motors’ Cobalt car was responsible for killing eight people. When the damning timeline of corporate cover-up and dissembling was revealed, the bosses were called to Washington and given a public roasting.
When 239 people disappear on an airliner, who takes the hot seat?
Because let there be no doubt about it—whatever the cause of this tragedy, it should never be possible in 2014 for an airplane to vanish without a trace.
The aviation industry has known for five years that finding an airliner at the bottom of the ocean is a much more costly challenge than it needs to be.
The loss of Air France 447 in the South Atlantic in 2009 rang all the right alarms. Flight-data recorders and cockpit voice-recorders would never be able to guide searchers to a deep-sea crash location in a timely manner—if at all.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde on fox hunting (“the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible”), the search for Flight 447 presented a picture of the pursuit of the undetectable by the woefully unprepared.
It was a teachable moment though. French investigators rapidly demonstrated that the technology now existed to end the futility of scouring vast oceans for very tiny and unresponsive mechanical objects.
I won’t go on. The whole saga of Flight 370 has become a damning revelation of the fact that the international aviation industry really has no leadership—no recognizable, accountable, and responsible leadership. No leadership that is prepared to concede years of needless delay, to acknowledge that a serious flaw exists in the international safety regime.
That is, until today.
Hail the European Aviation Safety Agency, EASA. This is what they now want to happen:
Black boxes aboard large airplanes flying routes over oceans should be much more powerful. They should be capable of transmitting their location no matter how deep they plunge. Or, alternatively, an airplane plunging toward the ocean should be equipped with automatic data streaming that would pin its location to within six nautical miles.
EASA also wants the battery life of the data recorders to be extended from the current 30 days to 90 (that technology is ready).
And that’s not all. The minimum duration of the voice recordings made in the cockpit should leap from the two hours now mandated to 20 hours.
But hold the applause.
EASA is part of one of the world’s most notoriously constipated bureaucracies, the European Union. Before the new recommendations can take effect they have to be adopted by the European Commission. And even then they will cover only the 28 member states of the EU.
It must also be said that this is not exactly a great leap forward that embraces cutting-edge technology. These are really enhancements to conventional black boxes. They represent what the administrators think is politically possible, not what is technically desirable and attainable: to remove the dependency on black boxes by equipping all airplanes flying over oceans with the capacity to continually stream data in real time.
In terms of political reality, the most difficult of these recommendations to see through to a conclusion will almost certainly be the striking extension of the duration of the cockpit voice recorders.
Pilots are highly sensitive to the idea of being overheard by what they see as Big Brother vigilance. The pilots unions in both Europe and the U.S. will fight this idea tooth and nail. They fear that some of their idle chatter won’t be politically correct. Or, more seriously, that their “oops!” moments when they suffer a lapse of concentration will go on the record.
Their objections should be heard, but they will need to make a more convincing case than one based on an invasion of privacy. The problem with the present two-hour recordings is that while they may serve a crash investigation well by providing a picture of the pilot’s proficiency during the critical time preceding an accident in the case of long haul flights, they don’t provide the complete record from takeoff, which should be a prerequisite in any investigation.
So, Europe stirs. The executive director of EASA concedes that “the tragic flight of Malaysia Airlines MH370 demonstrates that safety can never be taken for granted. The proposed changes are expected to increase safety by facilitating the recovery of information for safety investigation authorities.”
From the rest of the global aviation industry there is not a word.