Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared seemingly without a trace because someone on board tampered with the plane’s transponders and other communications systems, investigators believe. Whether the culprit was the Boeing 777’s own pilot, or some as-yet-undetected hijacker, is currently unknown. Experts have believed for weeks that what happened when the plane suddenly lost all communication with both the ground below and tracking satellites in above was no accident.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal Friday, the aviation industry is united in opposing steps to protect vital communications equipment, such as a plane’s satellite transponders, from tampering — a step that could prevent a mystery such as the still-baffling disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from ever happening again.
While making communications equipment tamper-proof may not stop hijackers or a pilot determined to commandeer a plane for his own bizarre purposes, it would provide a measure of deterrence. But most importantly, it would allow investigators to know the location of a plane at all times, meaning that no matter what happened on board, or even if an aircraft met a terrible fate as the Malaysia Airlines plane may have, an aircraft would never again simply “disappear.”
As a result, families would be spared the ongoing anguish to which the loved ones of Flight MH370 passengers are still subjected, more than four months after the Malaysia Airlines plane disappeared.
The very idea that someone — even a hijacker — would shut down a plane’s tracking systems was at one time unthinkable. But Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 mystery has changed all that.
“We never used to discuss the possibility of someone deliberately turning off anything that was transmitting vital information from the plane,” said Ray Valeika, former engineering chief for Delta Airlines, to the Journal. “It was never a factor.”
Why, then, does the airline industry, which has been aggressive in making other safety upgrades since the disappearance of Flight MH370, against modifying transponders and communications systems to make them tamper-proof?
The answer is simple: money.
“When it comes to making air-traffic-control transponders, satellite-messaging systems and other onboard communications gear tamper-proof, industry leaders seem opposed to major shifts,” wrote WSJ reporter Andy Pasztor, who has been covering the Malaysia Airlines story for the national newspaper. “Since those proposals likely would entail significant costs — and could take planes out of service for extended periods — airlines increasingly question the need for the extra safeguards.”
Making upgrades to tamper-proof transponders would be “very time consuming, very expensive and a big regulatory process,” Joe Clark, CEO of Aviation Partners Inc., told Pasztor, calling the process “a big deal to change entire electrical systems.”
After the 2001 September 11 hijackings, during which planes also had their transponders turned off, the industry also opposed moves to tamper-proof the systems, as it did again following the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, which also lost contact in mid-air, in similar fashion to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.