How can a plane vanish in a small world?

By Edward Hadas
March 19, 2014

How can a plane vanish in a small world? The information vacuum around Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is as unusual as it is disturbing. In the modern, globalised economy, things normally work well. When they don’t, the causes can usually be identified, and changes often follow to prevent recurrence. So far, MH370 is a distressing exception.

Until a few decades ago, a plane that disappeared from radar would simply be gone. Today, though, it is normally possible to unravel almost all such mysteries. There is much more knowledge than ignorance in technical matters. Aircraft have numerous onboard systems to ensure they are going where they should be and working as they should be. These interact with overlapping communications and tracking arrangements on land and in space. Indeed, so much information is generated in the normal course of flying that, without expert knowledge, the Boeing 777 aircraft could not have come so close to disappearing from electronic sight.

The cloud of information surrounding aircraft is particularly thick, perhaps because the idea of flying seems exceptionally unnatural to many people. However, most parts of the modern economy are remarkably well monitored and measured – and more so all the time. Tastes and practices can be traced with uncanny precision. Cameras track people’s movement, sensors watch machines and buildings, labels track when and where a product was made. When something goes wrong, the precise problem can almost always be identified.

The search for technical expertise does not stop at national borders. True, the MH370 investigation has seen some national frictions. But investigators from many countries are working together and technical skills have been recruited from wherever they are available. In a region of mutually suspicious governments, even the military authorities seem to be cooperating.

The multinational effort is typical of aviation, which is perhaps the most global of all industries. While there are many flag carriers, they all follow the same safety standards and fly aircraft with global production chains. Manufacturers, national regulators and airlines mostly work closely together to minimise the complexities caused by political borders and to ensure they do not become technological hazards. Poor and generally disorganised countries may do less well but, even there, airports are almost always the safest places to be.

Globalisation has not come as far in industries which rely less on the international community, but cross-border standards are increasingly the norm – from cars to pharmaceuticals, from processed food to consumer electronics, from pollution control to machine tools. The reason is simple: producers appreciate the economies of scale and customers gain from best practices and lower costs. National governments sometimes impose local standards, but more often join with each other to create cross-border regulation.

These complex systems are impressive but not flawless. Whether the explanation for MH370 is human, mechanical or both, it is neither the first nor the last catastrophic breakdown. From the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan to General Motors’ pointless delays in recalling faulty cars, sophisticated and supposedly self-correcting arrangements occasionally go badly wrong.

The reason is simple. Human nature is too variable and human knowledge is too limited to prevent every big sudden failure. The developers of the flight data recorders, the so-called black boxes which have been found on every aircraft since the 1960s, were realists: it is impossible to avoid accidents altogether, so it is best to prepare to learn from them.

The mistakes dominate headlines. That is largely because breakdowns are far rarer than might be expected from a casual observation of people at work. The modern mix of technical knowledge, effective bureaucracies and well-developed codes of practice works remarkably well. Indeed, accidents are so rare that there can be no doubt that the airline industry does much more good than harm, as does power generation, car manufacture and most parts of the modern economy.

The economy often changes in response to tragedy. Crashes, building collapses, environmental disasters, food poisoning and horrible side effects of medication provoke something new. If the plane and its black box are eventually found, MH370 is likely to generate more new equipment, tighter supervision or improved rules.

The time between malfunction and response is often unconscionably long, especially when immediate commercial interests or foolish ideologies argue against action. However, time and again the improvements come. Earlier in the industrial age, governments usually had to push hard. By now, most industrialists are keen to get started, once they admit there is a serious problem.

Of course, the explanation behind MH370’s disappearance could prove to be so strange that countervailing action will not make sense and no lessons can be learned. But history suggests otherwise.

10 comments

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If manufacturers and governments actually cared about people every plane would be equipped with GPS tracking equipment so it’s whereabouts would be known at every moment. The reason they do not is because the technology is too expensive. Preposterous. Simply preposterous.

Posted by njglea | Report as abusive

I don’t think any medium to large plane can disappear. I don’t think the government[s] are ready to tell each other publicly all the various means they have of tracking them. Would they keep it secret over 200-300 family’s “closure”? Absolutely.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

In my experience, when something disappears without trace it is because someone with enough power to do so has a hand in the process. Consider, for example, that the plane (after being diverted/hijacked) entered the airspace of a country who saw it as a threat in light of 911 modus operandi. They shot it down (who wouldn’t) and then gathered the pieces out of the ocean and destroyed them so that they don’t have to answer for it. See the 911 plane that crashed en route to the White house. I remember on 911 the phone-in of a guy to talk radio saying he saw them shoot it down – being ex military, knows exactly what a missile in flight hitting a plane looks like. Official report – passengers tried to claim the plane back and it crashed into the ground. Cover ups happen all the time – see the NSA spying on Americans. This may just be another such thing.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

njglea,

GPS devices only receive, they don’t broadcast. Your phone picks up signals broadcast by satellites and interprets that to place you on a map it has already downloaded. It doesn’t beam your location back up to the satellite.

GPS satellites aren’t even built to receive signals, so you’re talking about launching an entire new batch of satellites that are designed to receive positioning signals (Worldwide GPS coverage requires about 24 satellites up at any one time), and entire new hardware on the ground that actually beams location information to the satellites. We’re talking about a much more powerful signal from the ground to get it into outer space than the typical phone can manage.

I suppose you’re right that cost is the sole factor, but in the same way that cost is the sole factor we haven’t colonized Mars. Its not like this tech is just sitting on the shelf at Walmart next to your fish-finder.

Posted by EndlessIke | Report as abusive

It’s a stunt, taunt. One of the best experiments for deeper exploration and examination of mass psychology/sociology we’ve had in 21st century.

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

@Endlesslke, you’re correct about GPS, but not about satellite abilities. They publicly described the current ACARS system as hardware built into the plane (engines I believe) that gathers info and posts it to the ACARS satellite system. Had they not turned of the transponder and fiddled with ACARS, the US would have know exactly what happened to the aircraft. All this information is now public knowledge. Even Wikipedia ha a nice article on it.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Why, Mr. Hadas do you think the outcome of the missing plane is going to be “…strange…and will not make sense…”? What happened to logic, and laws of physics? You seem to ramble on about hi-technology keeping things in their proper place, but you give no credit to “sh*t happens.” I.e., a tire blew out on take-off, caught on fire, smoldered until hour into flight, burning caused smoke, pilot switches to alternate course, choked flight crew. Passed out, Autopilot flew plane until fuel runs out, Plane flies into ocean. No secret cameras spying, no terrorists, no suicides, no nothing out of the long list of things that can, and do, go wrong, every now and then. Nothing strange.

Posted by senja | Report as abusive

the internet is a COMMUNICATION system (designed to survive a nuclear attack actually.) In other words any vehicle equipped with any digital device with an electrical charge is “sending out a signal.”

it’s a complete and utter fabrication…and everyone knows this…to claim the plane is “lost” in some way.

this is why the media classifies the plane and passengers as “missing”…meaning there is a computer that flies the plane, does so via the “world wide web” and therefore by definition has a “protocol” established to immediately open and secure a line of COMMUNICATION.

I find it fascinating that no one wants to talk about the “real black box”…namely the “auto pilot” and how such a system is always on and always engaged.

this “disappearance”…if radar data is to be believed (“climbs to 40,000 feet…incapacitates all passengers and crew, makes precise 90 degree turn”) simply is not possible for a human to execute on from within the aircraft itself.

the irony of course is that “all the experts keep talking about a sequence of events that people have to deal with”..as if we don’t have machines “running” pretty much everything these days.

this isn’t a Piper Cub we’re talking about….but a 250 million dollar Boeing 777.

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive

Obviously, smugger would have use for such a airplane. The parts may be worth a lot on the black market. An unscrupulous owner of an airline may g3et his airplanes by illegal means.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Wow @lkofenglish, you got that really wrong! Every device and computer is not connected to the www unless it was built to do so and has some sort of connection ability, either wire or wireless.
Though I do agree that the ACARS system in the 777 has a connection via satellite uplink. That is public knowledge and discussed by the media.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive