Malaysia's prime minister has called for international aviation regulators to implement real-time tracking of airliners to prevent a recurrence of the baffling disappearance of flight MH370, while admitting missteps in the first days of the crisis.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, Najib Razak conceded that a chaotic public message and slow start to search and rescue operations in the early days of the plane's disappearance were a mistake.
But he called for changes that "would make it harder for an aircraft to simply disappear, and easier to find any aircraft that did" The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) held a special meeting earlier this week in Montreal to discuss growing calls for real-time tracking of aircraft by satellite, cloud storage of "black box" data and other innovations.
"One of the most astonishing things about this tragedy is the revelation that an airliner the size of a Boeing 777 can vanish, almost without a trace," Najib wrote. "In an age of smartphones and mobile Internet, real-time tracking of commercial airplanes is long overdue." Najib also said regulators should change crucial communications systems to prevent them being manually shut off.
Malaysia has said MH370's transponder, which relays an aircraft's location, and its Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting Systems (ACARS), which transmits information on a plane's mechanical health, appear to have been shut off around the time it went missing. The Malaysian premier also lent support to calls to extend the battery life of the location beacons for aircraft flight data recorders and to expand the capacity of cockpit voice recorders.
Black box beacons have a battery life of about 30 days. The European Union has proposed increasing that to 90 days. Cockpit voice recorders can now only record the last two hours of pilot conversations. In MH370's case, any conversations that took place as the plane was diverted early in its mysterious flight would have been overwritten.
Some of the changes being considered by the industry were first proposed after Air France flight 447 crashed in the Atlantic in 2009, killing 228 people, but little has been done. "These changes may not have prevented the MH370 or Air France 447 tragedies. But they would make it harder for an aircraft to simply disappear, and easier to find any aircraft that did," Najib said.
"The global aviation industry must not only learn the lessons of MH370 but implement them. The world learned from Air France but didn't act. The same mistake must not be made again." The ICAO meeting this week is expected to lead to a working group that should present its recommendations within five months. MH370 vanished on March 8 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
Despite a massive international search in the Indian Ocean, no trace has been found. "In the passage of time, I believe Malaysia will be credited for doing its best under near-impossible circumstances," Najib wrote. But he acknowledged "we didn't get everything right" and said his government would investigate why Malaysian air-traffic controllers, after first noticing MH370 was missing, took four hours to launch a search and rescue.