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The tale of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 evolves by the minute. Most likely it will have changed yet again by the time you finish reading this. But whatever the ultimate solution to the puzzle may be, it is not too early to start asking what it means.
Here are the facts as we understand them at the moment. On March 8, a plane en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing. There was no indication that anything untoward was happening before it stopped communicating with air traffic controllers. Shortly after it went silent, it began to deviate dramatically from its preprogrammed flight path -- again, with no indication of trouble. The plane managed to cross the Malay Peninsula and head into the Strait of Malacca without attracting any attention before it disappeared from radar entirely. According to the British firm Inmarsat, the plane was still airborne somewhere along a giant arc stretching from the southeastern Indian Ocean to Kazakhstan more than seven hours after departing from Kuala Lumpur.
One clear lesson, as Jessica Trisko Darden, an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, has recently argued, is that the countries of Southeast Asia are incapable of monitoring, let alone controlling, their airspace. They are also poor at mounting a swift, coordinated response to disaster. They excel, however, at blaming each other. This should raise eyebrows in Washington as the United States “pivots” to Asia. Their response illustrates that any cordiality among players in the region is but a thin veneer. It also calls into question the competence and reliability of the very states on which the United States would depend in the event of a serious confrontation with China. Perhaps even more ominously, China’s eagerness to outperform the United States in finding the missing plane would appear to have unseemly geopolitical overtones. It may even reflect Beijing’s sensitivity to domestic legitimacy, in view of the fact that most of the passengers aboard MH370 were Chinese nationals.
But there are larger lessons as well -- lessons with more than just regional significance. First, the good news. There is no evidence, and by most expert accounts it is extremely unlikely, that MH370 vanished as a result of malfunction. When vital systems in modern airliners fail, they trigger alarms. Backup systems kick in. Pilots report trouble if they are in radio range. There is no indication that any of this happened. Modern airliners are marvels of engineering, so it is no wonder that the odds of being in a fatal commercial airline accident are a mere 1 in 3.4 million. Fewer than a quarter of the fatal accidents that do occur are the result of mechanical failure. You are safer in an airplane than in a bathtub.
The only onboard systems whose performance is in question at the moment in this case are the transponder, which enables ground operators to identify the aircraft and provides crucial flight information, and the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which monitors system health and automatically relays faults to maintenance bases. These stopped working within minutes of the crew’s final, perfectly routine radio contact with ground controllers on the morning of March 8. It seems increasingly certain that these systems were switched off deliberately.
As far as anyone can tell, all of the ground-based hardware also worked. Primary radars, secondary radars, and radio communications all held up their end of the bargain in trying to maintain contact with MH370. Again, this is what we should expect. The relevant technology is very good, and is getting better all the time. The Huffington Post notwithstanding, there is no valid comparison between MH370 and Amelia Earhart’s fateful final flight. A Boeing 777 operating in well-monitored airspace today is to Earhart’s plane as the Internet is to smoke signals.
Now, the bad news. Although the mechanical systems seem to have worked well, the human systems failed repeatedly, both at the individual and group levels. For one, if the disappearance of MH370 was deliberate, then existing security measures failed to thwart it. In addition, Malaysian military radar operators failed to notice, misperceived, or wilfully ignored the plane’s radar track as it headed westward. Thai radar operators noticed, but failed to report it because no one asked. Other countries may have failed to notice or report the plane’s odd path as well because of incompetence, flawed procedures, or fear of embarrassment. For days after the plane disappeared, although there was ample information indicating that the jet had headed toward the Indian Ocean, Malaysia and an increasing number of other countries kept looking for it in the Gulf of Thailand.
There is even worse news. Much of the confusion and uncertainty could easily have been prevented. It is almost inconceivable that, nearly 13 years after 9/11, pilots can still turn off transponders by themselves. (In those rare circumstances when it might be desirable for a pilot to turn off a transponder, there is no technical obstacle to requiring an additional ground-based signal to do it.) Moreover, there is an eight-year-old technology available -- Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B -- that provides more detailed and more reliable flight and positioning information than does a standard-issue transponder. Although MH370 had ADS-B, and although amateurs on the ground picked up its signal, air traffic controllers did not. Across the world, countries have been slow to embrace it because of bureaucratic inertia and misplaced safety concerns. (In the United States, the FAA does plan to adopt it nationwide, but not before 2020.)
If ADS-B isn’t your style, continuous-broadcast GPS is another readily-available technology that airlines can use to monitor their fleets. But as Peter Parrish, vice president of operations for Latitude Technologies, which produces such a system, has lamented, “For some reason, the major carriers continue to rely exclusively on old technology to track their aircraft when one of our boxes could be tucked into an out-of-the-way spot on the aircraft to report location on a continuous basis, including on an accelerated basis right up to the point of impact in the event of a crash.” Ironically, while Malaysia Airlines’ regional subsidiary, MASwings, has embraced this technology, its parent company has not.
In one sense, the bad news is not surprising. Although technology advances by leaps and bounds, improvement in our mental ability to perceive and analyze the world takes place on an evolutionary timescale. Cognitive, bureaucratic, social, and cultural barriers to learning are ubiquitous. I have spent most of my professional career trying to understand why national leaders -- who are almost always very smart people -- make so many mistakes, and the answer is simply that they are human. As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said to me toward the end of his life, “I've met and worked with a good many people whose names are in the history books or in the headlines. I have never met a demigod or a superman. I have only seen relatively ordinary men and women groping to deal with the problems with which they are faced.”
We have come to appreciate that our rapidly increasing technological sophistication -- which has brought to us such benefits as safe, convenient air travel -- carries with it great potential cost. It gives us a greater ability to destroy, of course. But, as my colleague Thomas Homer-Dixon, CIGI Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, has pointed out, it can also lead to the creation of vulnerable, overly-tightly-connected, and inadequately resilient systems unless we pay careful attention. We have great difficulty appreciating, apparently, that individuals and organizations are often the weakest links in those systems. National leaders don’t think of themselves or their counterparts elsewhere as ill-informed, confused, emotional, fallible, and perhaps even slightly mad some of the time. Nor do they think of the complex departments, ministries, agencies, and militaries over which they have authority and nominal control as marginally to severely dysfunctional virtually 100 percent of the time. But they are.
In a tense, heavily-armed region such as East or Southeast Asia, it would be a good idea for leaders to reflect on the limited capacities of individuals and organizations and the inevitability that they will make mistakes. And at no time are mistakes more likely than in times of crisis. The bizarre story of MH370 should make the importance of that insight painfully clear.