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.