MH370 and lessons for the Aviation Industry, Governments, & the Media

MH370

 

  • The MH370 strategy has created learnings for all involved – mostly for the aviation industry including airlines, manufacturers, and regulatory authorities, and also for governments and the covering media. 
  • The key ones for the aviation industry include improving tracking mechanism by developing transponder and communication equipment that can’t be disabled, globalizing air traffic control and monitoring, improving black box design and strengthening passport control. 
  • Governments worldwide need to ensure more cooperation among themselves, and also treat the affected families with care and empathy, largely through effective communication. 
  • Finally, the media needs to act more responsibly and gather enough evidence before advocating any conspiracy or terrorism theories.

 

The tragic MH370 flight and the ongoing search for its whereabouts involving more than 25 nations has resulted in a lot of emotional and political outbursts, speculations, conspiracy theories, cost, verbal wars, and above all, grave news for the families of 239 passengers and crew on-board. A tragedy of this magnitude has created learnings for all involved – mostly for the aviation industry including airlines, manufacturers, and regulatory authorities, and also for governments and the covering media. 

Lesson #1: Tracking mechanisms need to be improved, and planes should not be allowed to disable their transponder and communication equipment. The transponder and communication equipment in Malaysia Airlines MH370 flight was disabled. Disabling these equipment means that a plane can’t send and receive information to the world outside the flight, thus making it untraceable (like MH370!). According to a CBS News article carrying views of Mary Kirby, aviation expert and the founder of aviation news company Runway Girl Network, it is important for manufacturers to develop communication systems that simply can’t be switched off from within a plane. Even when forced to shut-down, such systems should move into a back-up mode and should continue to transmit data thereby enhancing tracking. The aviation industry needs to move beyond cost considerations and develop and install such systems. And given the stakes involved, aviation authorities worldwide should make the installation of such a system a necessary safety perquisite. 

Lesson #2: Air traffic control and monitoring needs to be global and satellite-based. A report by The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) mentions that “the backbone of the global commercial aircraft monitoring system is land-based radar, augmented by a secondary radar on the plane that emits a signal pinpointing its location with a particular signature that identifies the aircraft.” However, such radars only cover 10% of the planet, creating a large void with respect to tracking planes over deserts, oceans and other remote areas. The need of the hour is to develop satellite-based air-traffic control service that covers the entire world. Bear in mind that such a system would need considerable time and money, so a phased roll-out of such a technology seems more likely. 

Lesson #3: Black-box design and technology needs to improve considerably. The black box is critical to any aircraft investigation, but the current technology leaves a lot to be desired. For one, current black box technology does not support live streaming of data from flights and as per the SMH report, these boxes can currently record only two hours of cockpit conversation (smartphones these days have more capacity!). Further, a black box has a range of as little as 10 nautical miles and runs out in 30 days. Finally, a black box doesn’t float so it is not surprising that it took two years to find the black box of Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The Air France incident had highlighted the glaring gaps in black box design, and the latest MH370 episode has created a feeling of nothing but déjà vu. Therefore, it is important for manufacturers to step up their efforts towards designing a black box that addresses most of the above concerns. 

Lesson #4: Don’t forget that pilot errors are still the biggest cause for airline accidents, so spreading conspiracy- and terrorism- theories without evidence can only worsen the situation. According to a database compiled by PlaneCrashInfo.com, there were 100 large commercial airline accidents worldwide between 2000 and 2009, and 54% of these accidents were caused by pilot errors and 24% by mechanical failures. Only 9% accidents were caused by acts of sabotage like explosive devices/shoot downs/hijackings, etc. (poor weather conditions accounted for 8% accidents and another 5% were caused by air traffic control/improper maintenance/etc.). Therefore, given the historical data, media channels and publications need to act more responsibly and gather sufficient evidence before advocating any conspiracy or terrorism or alien abduction theory through “experts”. Please note that we are we are by no means saying that the MH370 incident took place due to pilot incompetence, but only that a proper investigation into all possible causes should be carried out before airing views on media outlets, especially given the high emotional quotient among affected families and the gullible nature of general public in such situations. 

Lesson #5: Information sharing and cooperation among nations leaves a lot be desired. Managing a search and rescue involving 26 countries and their respective authorities is never going to be easy, but the current cooperation levels leave a lot to be desired. The SMH report cites that the Malaysian military was slow in sharing satellite information with other countries and China took three days to release its grainy footage of debris in the South China Sea. Similarly, Australia took four days to share images of debris in the southern Indian Ocean, while Thailand did not share its knowledge it picked up MH370 on its radar for 10 days, saying it was never asked. In crisis situation like the current one, where speed is the key to locating the aircraft and finding and saving the people on-board, nations need to step-up and enhance cooperation.

Lesson #6: Affected families must be treated care and empathy, and communication should be transparent, timely and well-managed. Be it withholding information for longer than necessary or communicating visa sms the final unfortunate finding that all aboard were lost, the MH370 incident is a case study for governments and authorities on ‘How not to manage communication during such a crisis’. Governments should ensure that communication is fact driven, routed through a single channel, and is done in timely fashion so as to avoid the spread of any rumors. Also, it is important to communicate the steps being taken for the affected families so as to convey a sense of empathy and support. Additionally, the affected families should be kept aware from media glare (ideally in a different hotel) so that they are spared the continuous hounding by media personnel looking for ‘bites’.

Lesson #7: Passport control needs to be strengthened. Two Iranian nationals boarded MH370 with stolen passports. While these people do not have terrorist background, the alarming thing is the ease with which they got on-board. The SMH report highlights that Interpol has an estimated 40 million lost or stolen passports in its database, and passengers boarded planes 1 billion times last year without their passports being checked against that database. So, it is important to design a system which checks against this database at all airports worldwide, thereby reducing safety related risk.

 

The article was originally published at: Arab Business Review

To read more thought-leadership stuff by leaders from Arab Region, please visit Arab Business Review

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