Just nine months after a Malaysia Airlines flight vanished, the puzzling loss of another passenger plane once again has highlighted an urgent question: How can modern jetliners simply disappear in today’s hyper-connected world?
As the search for the missing AirAsia Flight 8501 plane entered its third day, 10 pieces of debris were spotted floating in the sea off Borneo island and at least one helicopter was dispatched to pick up the items for investigation.
Indonesia National Search and Rescue spokesman Yusuf Latif said a military aircraft saw white, red and black objects, including what appears to be a life jacket, off the coast, 105 miles south of Pangkalan Bun. “This is the most significant finding, but we cannot confirm anything until the investigation is completed.”
Aviation experts said the difficulty in locating the wreckage underscored the limitations in how planes are tracked, and showed how little has changed since the last disappearance.
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Airlines use satellites to provide Internet connections for passengers, yet they still do not stream data in real time about a plane’s location and condition. As a result, Indonesian authorities have not been able to determine whether the plane, which carried 162 people, fell straight down or glided for miles before presumably crashing into the water, where search teams were converging.
The problems were compounded, experts say, by a lengthy delay in declaring an emergency after air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane, which slowed the search-and-rescue efforts.
“For basically an hour and a half, they were struggling with the issue and not making any progress to initiate a search,” said Robert Mann Jr., an aviation consultant based in Port Washington, N.Y. “That’s a long time in that situation.”
With daylight returning Tuesday in Indonesia, no signs of wreckage had yet been found, and Indonesian authorities sought to lower expectations about finding survivors.
“We realize that we have to be prepared for the worst,” said Jusuf Kalla, Indonesia’s vice president.
Kalla said that roughly 30 ships and 15 aircraft from at least three countries had joined the search for the jet in the Java Sea, amid the islands of Borneo, Java and Sumatra. The United States said it was sending a warship in the area, the USS Sampson, to assist in the search.
Search teams, which included fishing boats pressed into service and vessels from Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, covered a large area of water near the island of Belitung, the last known location of the plane.
Search-and-rescue teams Monday spotted debris that turned out to be unrelated flotsam, the same kind of false alarms that plagued efforts to find the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared over the Indian Ocean in March.
Although weather was suspected as a factor in the AirAsia plane’s disappearance, Pramintohadi Sukarno, an official at the Transportation Ministry who is helping lead the search, said background checks were being carried out on all passengers, as standard procedure.
Lessons from 9/11
By contrast to the slowness of the response in both Asian disasters, experts said, U.S. air controllers would probably sound an alarm within five to 10 minutes of losing contact with a jet.
“Everybody learned a lesson after the 9/11 hijackings,” in which some of the terrorists turned off the transponders that signal a plane’s location, said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. “So if that squawk suddenly goes off, it gets a lot of attention here.”
The delay in declaring an emergency, which also occurred after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 veered off course in March, could have been because of a lack of training or bureaucratic fears about acknowledging a serious problem, analysts said.
Apart from the specifics of the two disappearances, the technological issues have been the subject of substantial debate among airlines all over the world.
Since the Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared, the International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets global airline standards, has been considering new rules on tracking planes. But the organization has moved slowly, primarily because it has been hard for the industry to reach a consensus, given the extra costs involved and how rarely crashes occur, Goelz said.
Most airline executives say there is no need for planes to constantly transmit their locations and that, with tens of thousands of planes in the air each day, such a deluge could cost billions of dollars.
In addition to being tracked by land-based radar, most jetliners have transponders, radios and text data-links that periodically send coordinates and information about engine performance.
But some industry officials and many independent analysts say that the second such disappearance demands a response — and the sooner the better.
They say the best compromise could be a system that would start streaming a constant flow of data whenever a plane deviated from normal flight parameters.
These experts contend that such a system is particularly needed on transoceanic flights, where today’s large planes are often operating far outside radar range.
The issue first gained wide attention after an Air France jet crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. It took nearly two years for investigators to locate the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, the so-called black boxes that helped them reconstruct what had gone wrong with the flight.
Air France has since taken the lead in transmitting more data, programming its jets to send their positions, altitudes and fuel supplies every 10 minutes during normal operations and every minute in an emergency.
AirAsia recently began to improve the tracking of its fleet, but the missing plane had not yet been upgraded, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.
Under a timeline released by Indonesian authorities, radar and radio contact with the Airbus A320-200 jet was lost at 6:17 a.m. local time Sunday morning, just five minutes after the pilots had asked to change their routing as they flew through an area with severe storms.
Air traffic controllers had denied the request to ascend to 38,000 feet “because of traffic.”
Controllers also received a final data transmission of the plane’s location at 6:17, and all contact was lost a minute later.
But the controllers did not formally state the jet’s position was uncertain until 7:08 a.m. or declare an alert until 7:28 a.m. They finally declared an emergency distress situation at 7:55 a.m.
No one knows what happened to the plane, though perils from the storm could have destabilized it or disoriented the pilots.
Mann, the aviation analyst, said that if the jet had been using a streaming or near-streaming data system, it would have transmitted more location data as the plane fell or glided toward the Java Sea, and that could have provided a more precise area to search for survivors.
Passenger jets are equipped with electronic locator transmitters that are supposed to broadcast their location when a plane crashes into the ground or the sea.
But Indonesian officials have not detected any distress signal, either because the device malfunctioned or the AirAsia plane submerged too quickly for the signal to be heard.
The officials have also not detected any pinging from the black boxes, which emit their own signals for at least 30 days even if underwater.
Hugh Ritchie, the Singapore-based chief executive of Aviation Consultants International, said the plane was flying roughly 100 knots below the general cruising speed, well within the safe envelope for flight but possibly a sign that it was climbing, had experienced severe icing or slowed to better manage turbulence.
“My personal opinion is they should not fly through this type of weather,” he said. “I think this is probably a combination of severe weather and pilot error.”
Information from The Associated Press is included.