In 2014, we are celebrating the 100 years of commercial flight but despite today’s advanced technology, it is clear that we can’t locate a downed plane immediately.
It's not completely clear what kind of tracking devices were available on the missing Air Asia Flight, but experts say even with some of the best technology it can still be difficult to locate a downed plane immediately.
Experts say the plane would have had a transponder to communicate with radar run by air traffic control during the flight. The transponder works by alerting air traffic control about the plane's location and its altitude. If the transponder is disabled, either by someone on board or due to a crash, then air traffic control could look for unidentified signals on radar to see if the plane might still be in the air.
Planes typically relay maintenance information in flight to their manufacturers or airlines. This data can also help track a lost plane like Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic in 2009.
In the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the technology is called ACARS, for Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. The system sends different sorts of information between the plane and airlines and manufacturers on the ground. Depending on the sophistication of the information, the airline might receive the information itself or rely on the manufacturer to relay it for a fee.
The sophistication of the service depends on what the airline would like to spend. For example, Boeing promotes a service called custom alerting and analysis, which is available for 777, 747 and 787 aircraft with high-speed Internet connections. It monitors fuel, flight controls, landing gear, hydraulic power and communications.
"The major carriers collect it themselves because they have the capability of processing it and deciphering it and so forth," said David Greenberg, who worked 27 years at Delta Air Lines and is now an airline consultant as president of Compass Group. "My understanding is that Malaysia doesn't subscribe to the Boeing program and that they collect the data for their own use."
This missing AirAsia aircraft is an Airbus A320-200. The Airbus A330 in the Air France crash had sophisticated messaging that reported problems with airspeed and altitude that helped track down the missing plane and this is how they find the plane.
The Malaysian Airlines flight also had a key piece of equipment from telecommunications company Inmarsat that allowed the plane to "ping" a satellite even after the transponder was disabled. As a result of data gathered by Inmarsat, authorities were able to eventually find that MH370 flew for hours after the transponder was disabled and likely crashed in the Indian Ocean.
However, the missing AirAsia flight was not outfitted with Inmarsat technology, according to an email from Inmarsat spokesman Chris McLaughlin.
In the event no sign of the plane is found, the search team can use underwater microphones to see if they can hear a ping from the plane's black boxes. Each has a 30-day underwater locater pinger that could allow ships to locate jetliner more easily.
We believe a new standard should be researched and implemented immediately to track planes in a better way.
Source: USA Today, ABC News