Wireless technology enables people to locate a missing dog or change the home thermostat from thousands of miles away. Yet a commercial jumbo jet with 239 passengers and crew can disappear after an hour into flight and remain missing for days despite a global search effort involving more than 80 aircraft and ships from at least 10 nations. What happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 raises many questions, chief among them the poor use of technology in modern aviation and security gaps that remain long after the 9/11 attacks.
The Boeing 777 vanished early Saturday after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing. Its last recorded position put it north of Malaysia over the Gulf of Thailand, and the search was expanded far beyond the plane's last location and path. The Malaysian military said the plane flew another hour after vanishing from air traffic control screens, heading west at a lower altitude before being picked up by Malaysian military radar. The uncertainty over the plane's location only divided and slowed the rescue effort. China's official news agency reported late Wednesday that satellite images from Sunday showed possible plane debris just to the south and east of the plane's last known location.
Authorities are a long way from determining whether mechanical failure, pilot error, terrorism or some other cause is to blame. But what is jarring in this age is the difficulty in finding the plane. Satellites and other technology could have helped close a critical gap, from giving the plane's position and feeding real-time flight data to providing automatic reports of mechanical malfunction or dangerous flying. Much of that information, which is critical to understanding what happened in-flight, is currently contained in cockpit recorders. But they have limited batteries and can be difficult to find.
The plane's disappearance also exposes an alarming gap in airline security. Authorities said two people boarded the flight using stolen passports. While Interpol played down any hint of terrorism, the news underscores how most countries have refused to use Interpol's database of lost and stolen passports to screen for terrorists, traffickers and criminal fugitives. According to the international law enforcement agency, only three nations — the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates — routinely screen passengers against the database. And last year, Interpol reported, passengers around the world were able to board planes more than 1 billion times without having their passports checked against the registry.
It will take time to unravel the mystery of the Malaysia Airlines flight. But civil aviation needs new technology and tougher security to improve flying safety and the international response to catastrophic events. Interpol's announcement that it would allow two airlines to query the passport database as part of a test project was a good step. But governments and carriers need to make a larger commitment if they hope to boost passenger safety and better manage their resources in any future disaster.