The bizarre tale of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 comes at a time when flying is safer than ever. Nervous fliers squeeze the armrests for dear life, but most passengers have no problem nodding off as their jetliner cruises seven miles above the Earth. They have internalized the statistical truth that the most dangerous part of an airplane trip is the drive to the airport.

Yet disasters still happen, including this one. Officially declared a plane crash at sea with no survivors, the event remains so deeply mysterious that it seems premature to refer to the people aboard as deceased.

Viewed in the broad context of aviation safety, this weird case actually fits snugly within a recent pattern: Airline disasters now tend to be unprecedented in nature – what investigators call “one-offs.”

In the old days, planes typically went down because of engine failures, wind shear, collisions or some other familiar problem. But turbine engines almost never fail these days. Improved radar helps pilots dodge the lethal downdrafts of thunderstorms. Collision-avoidance technology commands the pilots of converging planes to make diversionary maneuvers.

Even if Flight MH370 is the ultimate one-off, aviation safety advocates say there are lessons to be learned from this tragedy, starting with the need for tamper-proof equipment that would stream data in real time to satellites and reveal a plane’s position.

“This could well be the kind of ‘black swan’ event that requires everybody to carry a location device,” said Chris McLaughlin, senior vice president of Inmarsat, the satellite company that helped calculate the likely flight corridor of the missing plane.


“As a ticket-payer, wouldn’t you like to know that the authorities know where your plane is at all times?” he said. “This is not expensive. We’re talking maybe a dollar an hour or less to get that information off the plane.”

Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which includes the Federal Aviation Administration, would go even further. She’d like to see the full “black box” data – a massive amount of information about the plane’s performance – streamed to ground locations during flight.

“There’s lots of reasons to have streaming data – not the least of which is to foil criminals – and to solve the mystery of what happened to your plane. It would have helped in 9/11. It would have been immensely helpful here,” Schiavo said.

Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines, said in an email that it is “premature for us to speculate and/or discuss potential changes to safety and security procedures.”

Safety advocates contend that real-time data-streaming technology will become more critical simply because there is more air traffic and longer routes are being flown over increasingly remote areas, including the North Pole and great expanses of open water.

The civil aviation industry has been working with authorities for years on what is known as NextGen technology, which would allow airplanes to be tracked more effectively by satellite. The FAA’s work on NextGen has been sluggish, however. Few airlines are willing to invest billions until the FAA delivers the final regulations that will govern the system.

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