Skip to main content

3 ways to prevent planes from vanishing again

By Jim Hall and Peter Goelz
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Tue May 13, 2014
The aerial search for missing Malaysia Air Flight 370 has largely been abandoned as the underwater search continues.
The aerial search for missing Malaysia Air Flight 370 has largely been abandoned as the underwater search continues.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jim Hall and Peter Goelz: Why losing a Boeing 777, or any other jet, must never happen again
  • They ask why we can track millions of users through their cell phones but not a jumbo jet
  • The technology to better track aircraft exists and must be deployed now, they argue

Editor's note: Jim Hall is the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. Peter Goelz is an aviation analyst and CNN contributor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) -- Nearly two months have passed while the world has looked on in disbelief as the search for Malaysia Air Flight 370 continues. We all hope the initial mystery of this tragedy -- where the aircraft rests -- is soon solved so that the ultimate mystery of what led that aircraft and its passengers to their fate can be determined.

As we wait, what everyone in aviation needs to agree on right now is that this must never be allowed to happen again. Millions of us can be located immediately through technology in our handheld cell phones, but a 300,000-pound Boeing 777 with 239 souls on board disappears from the face of the Earth. NASA has the capability of photographing stars billions of light-years away, and yet our best minds are forced to guess where this plane might be.

The airline industry has invested billions of dollars in technology that has made flight as incredibly safe as it is today. Yet many allow their aircraft to fall off any direct tracking capability as they fly over vast ocean distances and remote locations, confident that these planes will occasionally check in and reappear as they near the other side of the blacked-out area.

Jim Hall, left, and Peter Goelz
Jim Hall, left, and Peter Goelz

But what if, as with MH370, they don't?

It isn't like we weren't warned. Just five years ago, an Air France Airbus took off from Rio de Janeiro for a routine 5,700-mile trip to Paris. But the plane never arrived. Although the airline had received telemetric data that something was going terribly wrong and indicating in general where the plane had crashed, only the recovery of some large floating pieces of wreckage helped narrow the search area. Even after the search area was relatively quickly identified, the all-important flight recorders weren't recovered for another two years.

Despite a series of well-founded recommendations by the BEA (the French counterpart to the National Transportation Safety Board), no meaningful reforms have been implemented. The International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations body that governs international aviation, has done nothing to order the tracking of transoceanic flights in real time and, in those very rare events when something goes wrong, to mandate equipment to ensure a successful search and rescue operation.

This needs to end now. While there will undoubtedly be months and years of debate about next-generation capabilities, there are existing technologies and concrete actions that we can -- and must -- take right now to make sure this tragic spectacle is never repeated:

1. All ETOPS aircraft (certified for extended overwater flight) need to be connected to a "handshake" monitoring service offered by Boeing, Airbus or the major engine manufacturers or to some other commercial service like the Automated Flight Information Reporting System that tracks the aircraft at all times. The "handshake" services can be limited in duration to reduce cost and to not overtax satellite capabilities.

2. Flight recorder "pingers" need to be upgraded to give off two distinct tones, one of which could be heard at a far greater distance than the other but would not need to sound as often in order to preserve power. Further, the batteries themselves should be immediately upgraded to last 90 days.

3. All ETOPS aircraft must be equipped with deployable black boxes, which would separate from the aircraft on impact. Not only does the device float, it transmits a signal that is picked up by the world's search and rescue satellites, providing the location of the black boxes for quick retrieval, the location of the aircraft at impact, its tail number and its country of origin. Had MH370 been equipped with a deployable flight recorder, the initial search could have been limited to within 3 miles of the impact, increasing in accuracy with every emergency locator transmission, rather than requiring the world's resources to search an area as large as the United States.

The most difficult search in history

Has 'ping' evidence led search astray?
Satellite data scrutinized in jet search
Doubts raised over possible pings

If these viable steps had been in place, the location of MH370 would have been identified many weeks ago, and secure, tangible black box data would be in hand to help us understand what happened during that ill-fated flight. Instead, we are only slightly better equipped to locate this airliner than when we were searching for Amelia Earhart 85 years ago.

Unbelievably, the prospect of finding the plane seems more remote now than ever; a few weeks ago, Australia actually expanded the area it intends to search to the size of the state of Indiana, virtually guaranteeing that this will be the most costly search in history. And analysts have recently speculated that the basis for determining the search area may be completely without foundation.

The embarrassment of this state of affairs for the industry and regulators is eclipsed only by the grief of the families of the 239 people who put their trust in an appallingly antiquated system governed by a hidebound international bureaucracy.

The United States, one of the founding members of the International Civil Aviation Organization, needs to take a stronger hand in getting these common sense safety improvements adopted immediately. If the organization continues to dither, then the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration must act unilaterally.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT