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MH370: Where do we stand two years later?

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Quite honestly, pretty close to where we stood two years ago.

Today marks the grim two-year anniversary of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, the Boeing 777-200 with 239 passengers and crew aboard that veered from its planned course about 40 minutes after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing. Where do we stand two years later in three key areas: Finding MH370, figuring out what happened and implementing flight tracking requirements?

Finding MH370 There was stunningly no trace of the aircraft at all until late July 2015 (more than 16 months after the flight disappeared) when an aircraft part—a flaperon—that was later confirmed by French investigators to have come from MH370 was found on Reunion Island. Malaysian transport minister Liow Tiong Lai has said there is a “high possibility” that another aircraft part found just last week off the coast of Mozambique is from a 777. If it is confirmed that the newly found debris is from a 777, then it would likely be another part from MH370, since there is no other 777 unaccounted for in that area of the world (or anywhere else). Satellite and meteorological data analysis done by the Australian Defense Science and Technology Group did narrow the MH370 search area in the southern Indian Ocean late last year. But two years later, that’s where things stand: one confirmed part, another unconfirmed part and 44,000 square km of “priority area” being searched in a vast, deep ocean.

What happened? The finding of at least one aircraft part squelched the wildest theories, such as the aircraft being hijacked and landing safely on a remote island or that it was sucked into a black hole (which was actually discussed on CNN). There continue to be many theories, though because so little of the aircraft has been found (including, significantly, no flight data recorder and no cockpit voice recorder) there is little substantive evidence for any of them.

The most serious findings have come from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which has cited satellite and meteorological data—including the final satellite communication transmission from the aircraft—indicating that both of the aircraft’s engines flamed out. Investigators also relied on 777 performance characteristics provided by Boeing.

ATSB concluded that after MH370 had been airborne for 7 hours and 38 minutes, “fuel exhaustion was probable … It is likely that the right engine flamed out first followed by the left engine.” ATSB said the left engine “could have continued to run for up to 15 minutes after the right engine flamed out.”

ATSB has noted that the evidence of a double engine flame-out is “inconsistent with a controlled ditching scenario” because “a controlled diching scenario requires engine thrust to properly control the direction and vertical speed at touchdown and to provide hydraulic power for the flight controls including the flaps.” In other words, no one was likely “controlling” the aircraft when it hit the ocean; the aircraft ran out of fuel and its engines shut down. This doesn’t rule out a nefarious act by a pilot, but it also does not rule out other scenarios. The central questions remain: Why did the aircraft fly so far off course? Why did it apparently keep flying until it eventually ran out of fuel?

As unsatisfying as it may be, the truth is we don’t know what happened.

Flight tracking requirements There was a lot of hue and cry immediately after MH370 disappeared to considerably and quickly beef up the requirements for tracking commercial aircraft, particularly in remote, oceanic areas. However, two years later, the results have been mixed.

ICAO, the UN body governing civil aviation, has come up with two key requirements: 1) In standard circumstances, airlines will adhere to a requirement of reporting aircraft position at least once every 15 minutes when in oceanic or remote airspace. 2) For “distress circumstances,” aircraft should carry tracking devices “which can autonomously transmit location information at least once every minute.”

Number 1 was supposed to go into effect in November of this year, but pressure from airlines, among others, have pushed back the applicability date of this requirement to November 2018. Number 2, just announced March 7, won’t go into effect until 2021. There have been some very promising technological advancements and trials regarding the tracking of flights, particularly using satellite capabilities, and flight tracking will probably eventually be fairly comprehensive in the future. But the operative words are “in the future.”

So, getting back to the question I posed at the beginning of this post: Where do we stand two years later? Quite honestly, pretty close to where we stood two years ago. That’s not to discount an incredible amount of work done by a lot people of good will. But here are the undeniable facts: barely any of the 777 has been found, there is little idea of why it crashed, and when you board a commercial flight on March 8, 2018—two years from now, four years after MH370’s disappearance—there will still be no requirement in place that the aircraft report its position in 15-minute intervals.

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