A decade after crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, planes still at risk of vanishing off the map

Relatives of passengers missing on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 shout slogans outside the Lama Temple in Beijing on March 8, 2016. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

“Good Night. Malaysian Three Seven Zero.” Those six words were the last radio transmission from the cockpit of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, less than an hour after the aircraft took off late at night from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014. Minutes later, the plane disappeared from air-traffic control radar screens.

The huge Boeing Co. 777 jet, almost as long as a Manhattan city block and taller than a five-story building, had somehow managed to make itself invisible in the clear night sky. There were 239 people on board.


Ensuing search operations combed through some of the deepest ocean floors in the inhospitable southern Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles off Australia’s western seaboard, and found no trace of the main fuselage or any passengers and crew. Of the 3 million components in the 777, just a few fragments washed ashore years later on the east African coast.

With no mayday call, no known flight path and no wreckage, MH370 remains modern aviation’s biggest mystery. And while investigators had very little to go on, they were clear on one thing: A plane must never go missing like this again. Yet 10 years on, an industrywide push to rule out a similar case has been stymied by bureaucracy, financial pressure, and a debate about who should have ultimate control of the cockpit, according to years of regulatory amendments chronicling the process. A key aircraft-tracking tool that was proposed by Malaysian authorities weeks after the disaster is yet to be implemented. While the industry has saved hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment costs, there remains an ocean-sized hole in aviation’s safety protocols, meaning that a doomed passenger jet in a remote corner of the planet could remain hidden forever.

As search teams looked in vain for MH370, an additional layer of safety regulation spearheaded by the International Civil Aviation Organization proposed new jets should broadcast their position at least every minute if they were in trouble. The aim was to give authorities early warning of an unfolding disaster. Should the plane later go down, rescue teams would at least have a chance of locating the crash site.

It hasn’t turned out that way. The one-minute tracking rule has twice been delayed. It was initially scheduled to be in force in January 2021 but is now set to take effect from January 2025. Bloomberg News asked more than a dozen major airlines spanning the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Asia how many planes in their fleets already meet ICAO’s requirements. At the airlines that responded, very few planes are compliant.

Air France, which had more than 250 aircraft as of September, said seven jets — all Airbus SE A350s — comply with the standard. Korean Air Lines Co. said three of its 159-strong fleet are equipped with the tracking device, while Japan Airlines Co. said two of its 226 planes have the technology installed.

The delay since MH370 vanished has been unacceptable, said Hassan Shahidi, president and chief executive officer of the Flight Safety Foundation, a Virginia-based not-for-profit group that promotes aviation safety standards. “This was a tragedy and solutions have been developed. It is absolutely imperative that we take this final step,” Shahidi said.

As well as being years late, the fresh tracking standard applies only to new aircraft. There’s no requirement to install the relevant technology on more than 20,000 older planes in service as of last year. That means thousands of aircraft will fly for decades, ferrying millions of passengers around the world, without a capability that was deemed crucial after MH370 disappeared.

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