Malaysia MH370: What Questions Should We Ask Ourselves?

As the tragic disappearance of Malaysia flight MH370 continues to haunt and perplex us, the world reaches for answers in an information vacuum.

There’s been a lot of chatter, especially among the aviation community, emphasising that we should avoid guessing at what might have happened; that we should reserve our judgement until more is known.

I disagree with this point of view.

I believe that misinformation is dangerous in any situation, and that some have been too quick with the Twitter trigger; resulting in compounded confusion.  But it is in our nature to speculate.

When human beings face circumstances so inexplicable, they cannot hold back from searching for answers.  Those with some insights into of the inner workings of our industry, cope with this same very human need by presenting theories, separating the likely from the unlikely.

None of us really know anything in this specific case.  Because of the way aviation manages information, none of us can.

That does not mean that those of us who have seen aircraft accidents before cannot at least question what lessons we have learned from those events, and how we might have avoided being so very much in the dark.

I’ve seen a few people make a point that they will reserve all judgement until we have the facts.  This sounds noble, even wise, but it’s unrealistic.  Aviation can take years to gather all the facts on anything.  If we waited years to propose changes based on events, the long time-line to correct problems, inherent to our processes, becomes even longer.

Again, we should not jump to conclusions, and not spread fear, but we should ask questions.  This situation deserves questions.

We should ask whether we have applied what we’ve learned from past events.  We need to consider whether we have invested in necessary improvements to avoid losing all traces of an aircraft.  We need to ask ourselves whether we take this seriously enough to develop the critical infrastructure which would facilitate a search and rescue effort.

I have seen a number of comments that we are getting ahead of ourselves, that the industry is very safe, that these rare events do not warrant an investment in technology which will largely be unnecessary.

“At what price safety?” asked one commentator.  An interesting question, as it has two completely interpretations, depending on your point of view.

The point of view of this particular individual was that we simply cannot spend the limited funds of the industry on programs which will yield little proven benefit from day-to-day.

But what is the cost of this situation to the industry, and to governments?  At present, all involved in trying to find MH370 will conduct an extended search; “for as long as it takes.”

We’ll have to tally the numbers of that search soon.  As much as it pains me to say it, it might take years before that investment yields any results.

I would hazard an educated guess that the combined costs of the extended search for the Air France 447 black box and the search for MH370 now, would exceed the costs of equipping aircraft around the world with data transmission systems and setting up the data management infrastructure required.

Resorting to concerns over costs is a false economy, and no excuse for inaction.

Papers calling for action on this matter date as far back as 2005, even before AF447 fell into the Atlantic.

After the ill-fated Air France flight, reports and calls to action began to emerge from all corners, reached their peak in 2011; then went eerily silent.

Once the black box for AF447 was found, the focus turned to examining its contents.  While this is understandable, the point of aviation investigations is to identify failure modes, propose changes, and then implement those changes.

Those are the basic mandates of our safety community.  If we fail to follow our own mandates, then what confidence should the public have in our processes.

Claiming that we have fewer accidents than anyone else is really not enough.  We should remember that those very few incidents produce an international alarm and concern, which is infinitely greater to a single automobile accident, or even a train accident.  Perhaps only cruise ships get as much attention, and they cannot just disappear.

As Flight Chic reader, Jeffrey Solomon, a travel industry expert who writes his own blog on the cruise customer experience, points out:

“It is unlikely for a similar incident to occur with a cruise ship. Sure, if something sinks deep enough, it becomes difficult to find. However, it isn’t so much the technology that makes cruise ship disasters MUCH easier to find..it is the speed at which it happens.  So, there is time for communication via satellite, as well as time for Coast Guard to view radar visuals. This speed at which cruise ship incidents occur is what allows authorities to more firmly grasp locations, as well as the ability to save more lives.”

When aviation encounters problems, we do not have the luxury of a long reaction time.  This doesn’t just apply to our technology, it also applies to our systems and processes.

The cruise industry understands that they are in the travel business, that they handle tourists not sailors, and that these tourists need to feel secure throughout their journey.

How is that different from commercial aviation?  Our passengers are not aviators.  They too expect to feel secure.

We think of ourselves as a transport medium, and we are; but we are also a branch of the travel industry.

We spend millions on enhancing the passenger experience, including investments in WiFi so our passengers can surf the net onboard, but inherent to that enhanced passenger experience are safety and security.

Another argument I’ve seen against questioning the issues of flight data recorders and communications infrastructures, is that right now the timing is bad.

The point of view of these individuals is that, by raising these questions right now, will make people even more scared to fly.  Really?  Our questions are doing that?  Or could be that the prospect of disappearing during a routine flight (no matter how very unlikely) is terrifying to people?

When you examine the facts, the excuses are weak.

Most of the arguments, as well as the difficulties getting answers from parties involved in these decisions, highlight an area for improvement in our industry.  It is one which requires shift in our thinking.  Right now, the philosophy is: Don’t ask too many questions.  Don’t raise any uncomfortable issues.  Don’t make trouble.

I would argue this: asking questions is avoiding trouble.  It demonstrates to the world that we are a responsible industry; one which analyses its processes and takes the necessary actions to improve them.

Even if those actions will not be necessary 99.9% of the time, they will instil consumer confidence 100% of the time.  If you want to put it that way, it’s a good investment in public relations, as well as a good investment in safety and security.

One last consideration to keep in mind: our financial frailty.  It is true that the airline industry is always in a precarious financial position, nearly always on the edge of bankruptcy.  Aviation operates on lean margins which no other industry I can think of would tolerate.

We’ve barely progressed from functioning as an extension of government services.  We’ve only begun to carry our operations as businesses which attract the generous support of markets.  From the biggest airlines to the smallest suppliers, many make a tiny profit, and some carry losses from year to year.

We can’t afford to make large investments to infrastructure, and we can’t afford not to.  It’s a conundrum.

Perhaps it is one which only government support, via tax breaks or supplemental financing, can overcome.

I know.  I’ve just opened up a whole other can of worms.  But let’s use those worms as bait to fish for answers.

We cannot continue, in good conscience, with the status quo.  We’re going to have to make a change.

I won’t speculate on what happened to MH370.

Frankly, I have no idea.  Nor does anyone else.

I will limit myself to speculating on our future.  I will say that we’re about to undergo a major industry hit, and we’d best brace ourselves for it.

I have other reasons for thinking this, which go beyond MH370.  I had them drafted to publish, then Friday happened.  I’ll wait to elaborate on those until we know more about the fate of this flight and other events which could affect us.

I don’t want to bring anyone down, but I’ve seen this dynamic before.  If you’re an industry insider, you’ve likely seen it too.

We reach a peak and the utterly unexpected happens, and we’re back to sorting ourselves out.

In many ways, it is evidence of the commitment and the determination of the great people who make aviation possible that we endure these periods of darkness and keep flying through them.

Since we cannot control the unexpected, the best we can do is be prepared for the worst and make the most of the best.

These proposals to improve communications and infrastructure are preparing for the worst so we can make the most of the best.

I submit to you that it’s a good policy for aviation to adopt.

Starting today.

Flight Chic will continue to update the MH370 event timeline as reflected in reliable and compelling stories and articles, on a dedicated MH370 page at Flight Chic on RebelMouse.

Featured Image: After the crash of Gol Transportes Aéreos Flight 1907Brazilian Air Force personnel recover the flight data recorder of PR-GTD, the Boeing 737-8EH used for the flight, in the Amazon Rainforest in Mato GrossoBrazil, used under creative commons license via Wikimedia.

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