Skip to main content

AirAsia: The question on everyone's mind

  • NEW: Debris from AirAsia flight has been recovered, officials say; two bodies found
  • The question: How can we lose a plane?
  • There is pressure for new technology to be installed on planes
  • But there are obstacles that remain

(CNN) -- You don't have to be an expert to ask yourself the question: How in the world, with today's technology, can a commercial airplane go missing?

It's a question, but also an expression of disbelief.

Those who get lost driving can use GPS. If you lose your iPhone, there's an app to track it down. Scientists successfully plotted the course for a spacecraft that landed on a speeding comet.

But something goes wrong aboard a 123-foot, 67-ton passenger jet, and rescuers must resort to scouring the ocean?

"Why is it easier to find an iPhone (than) to find a plane?" one Twitter user, Catalina Buitano, asked.

There are dozens of similar questions on social media. They hint at the same sentiment: In a world where people's locations are tracked for everything from map apps to what ads appear on a Web browser, why does Big Brother's gaze avoid the skies?

"Why, in this day and age, do we rely on the physical recovery of black boxes? Flight data should be continuously streamed to the cloud," read a tweet by Jacob Rossi.

Of course, this question has been asked before.

The disappearance of AirAsia Flight 8501 on Sunday was the second time this year that a plane vanished. Debris from the Airbus A320-200 has been found, the airline said Tuesday, and two bodies have been found.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished, too, and remains missing 10 months later.

At that time, Jim Hall, the former head of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, called for upgrades to the tracking capabilities of planes that fly for extended periods over water.

The airline industry has invested billions of dollars in safety features, "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," Hall wrote.

In a preliminary report on MH370, Malaysian aviation authorities recommended that the International Civil Aviation Organization look into the benefits of introducing a standard for real-time tracking of commercial aircraft.

The technology exists to track flight data in real time, but even after tragedies such as MH370, cost and government bureaucracy are cited as obstacles to implementation.

"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," Hall wrote, referring to MH370. "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."

Another Twitter user phrased the thought this way: "If we have astronauts reaching safely the International Space Station, why do we still have missing planes on Earth?"

CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo says it is time for world leaders to take concrete action on upgrading technology for tracking planes. Making recommendations isn't enough, she said. There need to be laws.

"I think at this day and age, there's really no excuse for (not having real-time tracking)," Schiavo said on CNN's "New Day" on Monday. "I mean, the kind of technology, it's already here. We don't have to wait to develop it. Those planes could be sending out continuous signals."

What to know about air turbulence
How did weather affect AirAsia flight?

Two companies with products on the market for real-time streaming are Flyht and Star Navigation Systems.

But the technology is not catching on with major carriers.

Cost has been the biggest hurdle, though the technology is slowly finding its way onto airplanes, said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly.

Airlines have lobbied for governments to contribute money to equipping planes with new technology, arguing that it is not just an airline issue, but a national security consideration.

The question of who will pay for the technology is beginning to get answered, but not as quickly as travelers would like to see, Kaplan said.

So, those in disbelief are not alone in wondering how in today's world a plane could simply get lost. It's just not an easy question to answer.

Part of complete coverage on
AirAsia Flight QZ8501
updated 10:21 AM EST, Thu January 1, 2015
Searchers looking for more bodies and wreckage from AirAsia Flight QZ8501 in the Java Sea faced fresh difficulties with bad weather.
updated 8:10 AM EST, Thu January 1, 2015
New Year's Eve was a stark and painful reminder that many of the victims of QZ8501 were on their way to Singapore to celebrate the new year there.
updated 7:29 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
The investigation involves recovering the bodies, accessing the flight data recorders and mapping where debris is found to reconstruct its path.
updated 7:33 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Some may call it serendipity, others divine intervention. Either way, circumstances prevented two families from boarding the doomed flight.
updated 11:28 AM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
The discovery of debris means investigators have taken a big step toward answering some key questions.
updated 9:42 PM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
For families of some people on board AirAsia Flight QZ8501, the devastating images came without warning.
updated 11:28 AM EST, Thu January 1, 2015
A family, veteran pilots, a fiance and more. Here's what we know so far about some of the passengers.
updated 6:30 AM EST, Mon December 29, 2014
Time line of events leading up to the disappearance of AirAsia Flight QZ8501.
updated 11:40 AM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
Professor Alan Khee-Jin Tan says Flight QZ8501 stirs fears passengers might lose confidence, but AirAsia will weather this difficult period.
updated 10:07 PM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
Safety concerns surrounding booming Asian airline market has raised questions about the AirAsia crash and pilot training.
updated 8:44 AM EST, Thu January 1, 2015
Click through our photo gallery as we track the story of missing Flight QZ8501.
updated 12:30 PM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
No one can fathom the agony that families of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 are going through -- except the families of MH370.
updated 3:29 PM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
MH370. MH17. Air Algerie 5017. And now AirAsia Flight QZ8501. Is 2014 the worst year in aviation history?
updated 9:32 PM EST, Mon December 29, 2014
Much has been said about the rivalry between Airbus and Boeing and the Airbus A320 features prominently in this.
updated 10:20 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
What you need to know about the boxes that are key to every plane crash investigation.