The status of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 can be summed up in five words: still missing, whereabouts still unknown.
After 23 days of the unprecedented search for Flight 370, it has become tragically obvious that the passengers and crew of the missing plane have perished. Why, then, are more than 11 nations continuing the round the clock search for the missing aircraft?
The most obvious answer is that the loss of a modern commercial aircraft simply does not happen in the real world of avionics, and aviation experts, as well as Homeland Security operatives, want to know how a modern airliner can disappear as Flight 370 has.
Since the age of flight began, going back the earliest hot air balloon flights, there have been approximately 125 cases of aircraft disappearance; only 20 have involved scheduled commercial passenger flights.
The most famous case was the 1937 disappearance of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E during her “round the world” flight attempt. In 1944, American big band leader Glenn Miller disappeared when his UC -64 vanished over the English Channel.
In 1972, Louisiana congressman Hale Boggs, Democratic majority leader and a member of the Warren Commission, disappeared while en route from Anchorage to Juneau for a fundraiser for Alaska Democrat Nick Begich , who was also on board. It was the disappearance of Hale Bogg’s plane that instigated a federal law requiring the emergency locator transmitters on all U.S. civil aircraft.
Before the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, only one modern commercial jet aircraft has ever gone missing. A Boeing 727 was stolen from an airport in Angola on May 25, 2003 and was never seen again, despite a worldwide search by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. The intelligence agencies were especially interested finding that missing aircraft because it had been converted to carry diesel fuel. In the aftermath of 9/11, the prospect of a flying diesel fuel tanker falling into terrorist hands was a terrifying prospect for US security.
Boeing wants to get its hands on the remains of Flight 370 to determine if there were any mechanical problems to which the crash could be attributed. The Boeing 777, in addition to being the largest two-engine commercial aircraft now in use, is also considered one of the safest airplanes ever built…and Boeing wants to keep that reputation intact.
To date, there have been only three incidents involving the 777, which went into service in 1995. In January, 2008, British Airways Flight 38 crash landed in at London’s Heathrow, injuring 47 passengers. A design flaw in the Rolls Royce engines was identified as the cause of the crash. In July of 2013, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash landed at San Francisco International as a result of pilot error when the crew attempted to “hand land” the aircraft because the runway’s instrument landing system was out of commission.
Malaysia Airlines obviously wants to know what happened to Flight 370 so they can begin the process of settling the lawsuits that have already been filed in connection with the plane’s disappearance but, as much as they would like to put this event behind them, they have to know what happened to the plane before negotiating settlements.
The U.S. government and the governments of other “target nations” want to know what happened to Flight 370 so that they do not have to worry about that particular Boeing 777 showing up again someday over one of their cities, filled with C4 explosives. The number of target nations who fear such terrorist attacks has grown recently as both Russia and China have experienced an uptick of terrorist related incidents in their countries. China, in particular, also has a need to know what happened to Flight 370 because of the number of Chinese nationals who were on board the plane when it disappeared.
As the number of false sightings of debris fields continues to escalate, two facts become obvious: the oceans are full of junk, and no one knows how much debris to look for. If Flight 370 went down in one piece, it might have broken up on impact, in which there would be a lot of surface debris. If it exploded in flight, however, the debris might be so widely dispersed over the ocean that finding pieces of the missing aircraft would be akin to finding a thumb tack in the desert…or an ocean… in the middle of the night
Another question that is beginning to disturb media analysts is whether or not the coverage of the search for Flight 370 has spun out of control. More than 1,885 articles have been published over the past 24 hours about the search for Flight 370 they all say the same thing: there is no news.
Overnight media traffic figures have been showing CNN pulling away from competitors Fox and MSNCBC due to its round-the-clock saturation coverage of the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines aircraft. The number of internet searches about the missing aircraft logged by Google Analytics indicates the depth of the continuing interest in the case…and generates the ongoing coverage of what has become a non-event.
But, most of all, everyone is transfixed by the notion that a modern aircraft can still disappear, despite all of the avionic technology that has been built into planes like the Boeing 370, and all of the surveillance systems that have been deployed by the world’s governments to spy on each other. The inability to find the missing aircraft casts doubt on the strength of the onboard avionics, and even more doubt about global surveillance systems designed to detect terrorist plots.
Even if it turns out that MH370 crashed into the sea, the coverage of the event has made it clear that it is entirely possible for a terrorist organization to hijack an aircraft like the Boeing 777, make it disappear and, potentially, use it in a future terrorist attack. Wide-spread speculation that the Malaysian Airlines plane was hijacked in this manner may make it more likely that someone will try to do just that in the future. Flight 370 is still missing, and its whereabouts are still unknown.
By Alan M. Milner
Follow Alan Milner on Twitter @alanmilner