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Missing Malaysia Airlines MH370: Five air safety lessons to be learnt

The hunt for Malaysia Airlines MH370, which went missing almost two weeks ago, has been one of the most puzzling - and chaotic - aircraft investigations on record.

While multiple leads have gone cold, there are five lessons that should be learnt to fix the apparent - and sometimes shocking - weaknesses in the global air safety regime.

How could an aircraft vanish when there are websites that track planes in real time?

The public's incredulity is warranted because there is a technological solution, and has been for a decade. It's just that the airline industry, with many carriers in financial trouble, has been slow to adopt the system. 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.


But radar only covers 10 per cent of the planet. There are huge gaps over the oceans and desert, including in Australia. Moreover, the plane's secondary radar, like its separate ACARS communications system, can be shut down in the cockpit, as apparently happened with MH370, or by mechanical failure. This means only certain types of land-based radar can pick up the plane, mostly military facilities. Even then, the object can't be precisely identified. It will only be a blip on a screen. Satellites are even worse. The “pings” from an unidentified aircraft picked up by a satellite over the Indian Ocean last weekend could only be vectored into two vastly divergent arcs to the north and south.

The solution is a satellite tracking system that is used by about 60 per cent of planes – but was not on MH370. It broadcasts an aircraft's position, velocity and other information, second by second, and allows the aircraft to be located to within 10 metres. The aviation industry needs to embrace the technology as standard and develop a system that can prevent anyone in the cockpit shutting down the tracking system.

When countries co-ordinate a search mission, they're not always sharing information.

Malaysia's government has, justifiably, been lambasted for its missteps and mistakes. MH370 crossed its radar at 2.15 am, but it wasn't picked up by the four-person crew, who had fighter jets on standby, until later that morning.

But Malaysia's allies and neighbours have not shared satellite information in a timely fashion either. China took three days to release its grainy footage of debris in the South China Sea. It took four days for Australia to reveal images taken by a US satellite of large flotsam in the southern Indian Ocean. Thailand didn't share its knowledge that it picked up MH370 on its radar for 10 days, saying it was never asked.

It takes time to identify and analyse an image taken from space. However, China and US, the globe's great geo-political rivals, aren't inclined to share secrets – air defences and space-based surveillance hardware are some of the most sensitive military information around. Malaysia's Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said this week that his nation had “put our search effort above our national security” but bemoaned that they were the only country to do so.

There were passengers from 15 nations on MH370. In a globalised world, air disasters will require more international co-operation. New protocols for handling sensitive material between nations are needed. There are lives to be saved in search and rescue operations, and speed is of the essence.

Why doesn't the black box float?

The key to any aircraft investigation – the black box – can take years to find if a plane ditches in the ocean and its debris is not discovered for some time. Ocean currents can pull the plane wreckage hundreds of kilometres from the initial point of impact. In a handful of instances, the black box hasn't been found at all. Its beacon has a short range and sends out ultrasound. It's not connected to satellites, yet that technology is available and experts say it should be embraced.

Can the plane's flight recorder – actually an orange box, with two units comprising separate cockpit and flight data recorders – be better designed? The mystery of MH370 has prompted renewed discussion about designing a black box that can float. In deep water, its signal has a range of as little as 10 nautical miles and runs out in 30 days. Such devices certainly exist for boats, and some aircraft. Surely a flotation device that is triggered by barometric pressure, once the black box is sinking, could be devised and installed in commercial aircraft?

And then there's the startling revelation that a black box only records two hours of cockpit conversation and is set on a loop. In this age of smartphones that can store hundreds of hours of music, this seems unbelievable.

There are big gaps in the global airworthiness alert system.

One of the intriguing early developments in the search for MH370 was that the US Federal Aviation Administration had discovered, in June 2013, a 40-centimetre crack on a Boeing 777, where the satellite antenna attached to the fuselage.

But it took until February this year for a formal directive ordering airlines and manufacturers to investigate and fix any flaws on all these types of planes. MH370 was a Boeing 777-200ER model that was captured by the directive (although the antenna, says Boeing, was not installed on this plane).

Moreover, FAA warnings are seen as the de facto worldwide safety alert system. But the regulator confirmed to Fairfax Media that it had no formal jurisdiction over the Malaysia Airlines jet because it was owned by a non-US air carrier. The airworthiness alert system has been exposed as confusing, incomplete and dangerously slow.

Passport control is not as watertight as we'd like to think.

Two Iranians bordered MH370 with stolen passports. It appears they were asylum seekers, not terrorists. But the ease in which they boarded the jet showed how widespread the fake passport racket is, and how there is little cross-checking at airports.

Interpol has an estimated 40 million lost or stolen passports in its database. Passengers boarded planes 1 billion times last year without their passports being checked against that database. Australia is one of the worst offenders, using the Interpol resource to screen passports only 335 times last year for more than 30 million international visits.

The database already exists but there is no system to cross-check. Surely, a computer program could be devised that did this automatically and quickly, and was rolled out to all airports.