Following the disappearance of another plane over Southeast Asia, 2014 might well be remembered as the year of vanishing aircraft. With advanced communications technologies available, large commercial planes shouldn’t go missing with little clear information about their fates. It’s past time for aviation policymakers to demand more from the airlines.

In the days since AirAsia Flight 8501 disappeared with 162 people aboard experts can only guess at what happened. The last bit of information came from the pilot, who asked permission to ascend to avoid bad weather. Air traffic controllers denied the request. After that, there was silence — no mayday request, nothing.

It’s tempting to presume that a violent thunderstorm brought the plane down. But that’s just one plausible speculation, because another jetliner packed with advanced electronics didn’t have 21st-century communications and tracking systems on board. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in March and still hasn’t been found, carried an Inmarsat satellite tracking system that allowed investigators to do some tracing — work that indicated it had turned toward the open Indian Ocean. But it didn’t provide other key details. The AirAsia jet was tracked on radar, but that conveys only so much information.

Investigators might have an easier time finding the latest missing plane. For now, the AirAsia plane is presumed to have gone down in relatively shallow water. And it’s true that the number of planes that disappear like this is tiny compared with the 100,000 or so that take off and land without incident every day.

But that doesn’t undermine the argument that investigators should know more now, with information transmitted directly from the aircraft. The interest in better aircraft communication and tracking isn’t just based on heading off speculation and panic, on ending the torment of loved ones waiting for solid news or on avoiding the need for massive search-and-rescue operations — though all of those considerations matter. If there are survivors, a timely rescue can save lives.

Since Flight 370 disappeared, international aviation authorities have been working on aircraft communications and tracking policies with more seriousness — but hardly with urgency. An industry panel recommended some steps this month, calling for airlines to have some tracking function “within potential areas of operation and range” that communicates aircraft location within a nautical mile at least every 15 minutes. The panel also examined the possibility of restricting pilots from switching off transponders — which appears to have happened in the Flight 370 case — but concluded that this should be a “long-term prospect.” Though these standards are pretty basic, some airlines have nevertheless balked.

Now the action is at the U.N.-chartered International Civil Aviation Organization, which wants to establish a new Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System. The technology exists to regularly transmit a lot more revealing information from the sky to the ground. This can be done at close intervals, at times when instruments sense abnormal behavior or both. International regulators should finally require its use and coordinate standards across the industry. If they don’t, it will be up to national governments to do so.

Editorial by The Washington Post

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.