The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean is prompting calls for more global attention to security measures that could prevent similar tragedies.
Malaysian authorities said Monday new satellite data indicate the Boeing 777 passenger jet ended in the southern Indian Ocean, with the loss of all 239 people on board, hours after vanishing on March 8. The plane had taken off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing, but was diverted to the west about 45 minutes into the flight as part of what the Malaysian government calls a deliberate act.
In a statement, the International Air Transport Association representing the global airline industry said: “Very little is known about what actually happened to MH370, so it is premature to speculate about what changes in operating or security procedures may be introduced.”
But aviation analysts say airline companies and governments can and should make improvements in four key areas.
One possible explanation for the diversion of the Malaysia Airlines plane is that one or more intruders entered the cockpit, either taking control of it, or pressuring the pilot and co-pilot to act under duress.
Airlines have tried to prevent such intrusions by reinforcing the cockpit door and establishing security procedures for when pilots need to go to the bathroom or be served food and drinks. In one such procedure, flight attendants stand in front of the door while it is open, and they position a food cart as a barrier.
Aviation safety consultant Hans Weber, president of San Diego-based Tecop International, Inc., says a commandeering of MH370 by someone other than the pilots would indicate that the reinforced door is not sufficient.
“And depending on how sloppy an airline is with its procedures when the cockpit door is open, those could be very significant moments of vulnerability,” he said.
Ellen Saracini, the widow of a pilot of one of the four planes hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, has been leading a campaign for a new U.S. law that would require U.S. airlines to install a secondary door to reduce the risk of cockpit intrusion. The Saracini Aviation Safety Act has been stuck in congressional committees since last year.
Last month, Mrs. Saracini said a group of airline employees helped her to make a video that shows how a single cockpit door can be breached in two seconds.
United Airlines is the only major U.S. carrier to have installed fence-like secondary barriers after 9/11. But pilots said the company began removing them last year. United Airlines said “security measures have evolved in the years since the secondary barriers were ordered, and many more layers of security now exist.”
What if one of the pilots had commandeered MH370, altering the flight path without informing air traffic control? Weber says cockpit technology could be upgraded to report such an illicit maneuver to ground personnel, and allow them to take control of the plane.
The technology to turn a commercial plane into a remote-controlled vehicle that operates like an unmanned military drone has been in development for years.
In 2009, Fred Smith, founder of express delivery company Fedex, told a blogger that he wanted to add unmanned cargo aircraft to his fleet as soon as possible, but had to wait for permission from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA already allows businesses to apply for permits to fly unmanned aircraft for research and development, market surveys and crew training. But it does not yet allow unmanned commercial flights, saying they would have to meet very high safety standards.
Some aviation analysts say the manual shutdowns of the Malaysian plane’s automated communication systems shortly after takeoff show that the aviation industry also needs to redesign transponder and beacon devices.
An aircraft transponder is an active radio frequency identification device that uses its own power source to broadcast a radio signal to the ground, in response to a signal sent by radar. A beacon also relies on aircraft power, but broadcasts a radio signal at regular intervals, regardless of whether it is asked to do so.
Both devices enable an aircraft’s movement to be tracked. But a pilot has the ability to turn them off.
Mark Roberti, founder of U.S. media company RFID Journal, says beacons originally were designed to be turned off while planes were taxiing because their signals interfered with radar monitoring of aircraft movements on runways.
“Now, airports use a different system for tracking aircraft on the ground, so it makes sense to build in beacons or transponders that cannot be turned off,” Roberti said.
The 9/11 book “How Did This Happen?,” published in November 2001, noted that the 9/11 hijackers switched off the planes’ transponders to hide their movements. It highlighted the off-switch as a vulnerability that should be addressed.
Last week, Gregg Easterbrook, who authored the book’s aviation security chapter, wrote a New York Times opinion article that said: “The issue today is exactly as it was on 9/11.”
However, aviation consultant George Hamlin, president of Virginia-based Hamlin Transportation Consulting, says airlines have several reasons for not redesigning communication systems.
There are thousands of airliners already in the sky, so even if companies started upgrading devices on new planes, there would be a problem of retrofitting the existing ones, which would be considerable trouble and expense, he said.
Hamlin, a former Airbus executive, says installing aircraft devices that crew members cannot control also creates problems for pilots.
“You need a way to shut down any part of an electrical system that is overheating, because you do not want an on-board fire that leads to a crash,” he said.
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace consultant with the Teal Group, also based in Virginia, says no changes should be made to aircraft designs in response to the MH370 case.
“The experience of the past few decades shows that bad guys can find a way around technical solutions if they are on a plane, so the most cost-effective use of resources is to keep them off of jets,” Aboulafia said.
“Authorities need to improve human intelligence with better vetting of flight crews, better sharing of information about passengers, and better safeguards against counterfeit passports, even if they were not a problem with the missing plane,” he added.
Many countries already have upgraded passports in recent years, designing them with an embedded computer chip and a passive transponder that draws energy from a signal emitted by a passport reader device.
Such Epassports contain a biometric image of the passport owner and display it when scanned by an immigration officer, allowing the officer to compare that picture with the person presenting the document. That makes it harder for someone to get through immigration control with a forged passport or a legitimate passport whose picture has been replaced.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency that oversees international air travel, says 93 member states were issuing electronic passports in 2011, the latest year for which it provides that information on its website.
Roberti of RFID Journal says those nations include the United States, most of the European Union and many Asian nations. But he says no countries have set deadlines for all arriving travelers to carry an RFID-enabled passport.
“That may happen at some point, but it has not happened yet,” he said.