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Missing Risk: Could Tech Have Stopped Flight 370’s Disappearance?

Where We are Now, And the Big Question

How can a 777, the world’s largest twin-engine jet airliner, simply disappear? With all of the safeguards, technology, and risk management systems built around any airplane and airline procedure, why do we now find ourselves wondering where, exactly, an enormous airplane went?

The biggest question and concern that anyone must have is the fate of the passengers and crew, but also what can be learned about managing such a complex system risk. 239 people boarded the plane before takeoff, and now they are missing; and as the days move forward with no apparent clues as to what happened, family and friends are beginning to believe in the worst possible outcome. Did technology fail to identify an issue? Did a risk management plan fall through? 

By now you’ve heard about the mystery and apparent tragedy which has, at the time of writing, continued for over 4 days: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is missing, lost during a flight over Southeast Asia, with all contact ending early Saturday. Bound for Beijing, the flight may have changed course, or it may have turned back for Kuala Lumpur, or it may have simply experienced failure and crashed along the way. Potentially something else entirely different happened. 

The search zone is currently 27,000 square miles, according to this report on CNN, with Malaysian authorities seemingly unsure of exactly where to look to narrow the search for flight 370. It’s not just looking for a needle in a haystack, and much more looking for a needle in a 27,000 square mile geographic nightmare.

All Complex Systems Have Complex Risk

Airplanes are primarily tracked by radar, though if they dip below radar’s coverage, we must rely on a transponder to take over the role of identifying location.

Transponders & other technology actively communicate their position to air traffic controllers.  It helps air traffic controllers “see” who is in the air, where they are going, and where they are currently. Flight 370’s transponder seemingly turned off for reasons unknown, helping it disappear from tracking and leading to the enormous search operations underway currently.

So the question becomes: unless the transponder was turned off on purpose, why isn’t there a backup to it.

It’s curious as an outsider (and let me make that clear: I haven’t any expertise in this area) as to why only two main systems (radar and a transponder) are used to address location. It seems quite a lot is being left open to happen.

GPS has, in the past few years, become prevalent. Most people now have the ability to use handheld devices to get from point A to point B. Airplane GPS is a bit different, however. As quoted in this article from NPR, Todd Curtis (an aviation safety Analyst from the AirSafe.com Foundation):

“Airlines do use GPS systems for navigation, but GPS signals are not used in the transmission from the emergency locator transmitters, or from the acoustic locator device (which activates when the device is submerged in water) that's carried by the black boxes.”

This GPS system could in fact help those searching for it, but an aircraft doesn’t transmit its position through GPS, rendering it useless in this case.

And then there is the black box, of course, which is perfect for figuring out what went wrong, but absolutely useless when it comes to figuring out what’s going wrong, or communicating that information to the pilots or anyone on the ground.

To draw the comparison: a simple risk plan won’t work for a multi-year, multi-project effort. If that were proposed it would be rejected almost immediately. So how has risk been addressed as airlines increasingly use enormous planes and more challenging, long-range flights? Has risk management kept up with the demands of the business?

And this is perhaps one of the first major problems to address (or which could be addressed): why is it that the technology we use in these airplanes to track and identify problems stay antiquated. The black box has existed for decades but is only useful after the fact, the GPS systems of airplanes could, in theory, broadcast their last known position to help searches and recovery. But they simply do not. How much does the cost of a more useful system compare to the cost of a 777? 

In a Fox News Article, Richard Hayden of Flyht Aerospace Solutions explains just why some airlines are hesitant to use more recent technology, and it comes down to infrastructure costs: 

Many current planes in America use ACARS (the Aircraft Communication and Recording System), a decades-old system that required very expensive infrastructure and training when the airlines first installed it. It is essentially a digital link for text messages, but can’t transmit flight data on demand or continuously.

Given that heavy investment in legacy systems and procedures, Hayden said, the hesitation is understandable.

There are other systems which can address problems in real-time, but they present more expense to airlines, and this helps increase the hesitancy to adopt them. 

As airplanes become bigger and more complex, is stands to reason that their risk systems must also become more complex. But is this actually happening? You simply cannot hope to manage something so large with the same risk management systems as you use on smaller scales.

Adoption of New Tech, and the Importance of Now

That isn’t to say that new technology doesn’t exist, of course.The Boeing 777 is equipped with some of the newer technologies, but even this apparently isn’t helping in the search.

The question becomes: what’s the risk analysis on whether to have all of the bells and whistles possible for an aircraft? What is too much and what simply can’t be affordable to airlines?

When tragedy occurs, people look to what could have been done differently. Surely more tracking technology would help locate the airplane, but what about before-hand? Is it possible that existing technology would have identified the plane going off-course (as it is now believed it did)? And even if that technology exists, is it feasible to include such technology on every airplane as a risk management standard?

And what of the family and concerned parties (in our parlance, stakeholders)? In the past risk management may have meant explaining what happened (the black box), but now people want to know what is happening. The demand of risk management, in much the same way, is not to find out what went wrong but what is going wrong, and how it can be fixed in the moment.

Furthermore, consider the benefits of catching problems early. If the plane was identified as going off course while it was occurring, imagine what actions may have been taken instead of where we are now. The value of immediate knowledge is paramount, and as it seems in this case, potentially lifesaving.

The Question Remains as Unclear as the Answer

Was it a mechanical failure, terrorism, or pilot error which led to the missing flight? Truthfully we won’t know until the plane itself is found. Could technology have stopped the plane from disappearing from tracking? It’s possible, though not without a fundamental shift in the use of technology to better track and address the risks associated with airline travel.

Here we have a tragic but real-world example of risk management in action. Even if we remove the loss of life factor from the equation (which is surely impossible to do), we are left with the cost of launching a multi-country search, the hours spent doing so, and the equipment used compared to the cost of having the most up-to-date tech on board to begin with.

As of now, that question has yet to be asked in earnest, though incidents like this do bring it into the spotlight. Instead, we find ourselves waiting to discover the fate of flight 370, and asking ourselves what else could be done to prevent such a thing from occurring again. 

So let me ask the question to you: what is the balance between risk management and reasonable cost? Should all attempts and technologies be used in order to assure safety (in our world, project success), or is that simply unreasonable to expect? 

About Matthew Kabik

Matthew Kabik is the former Editor of Computer Aid's Accelerating IT Success. He worked at Computer Aid, Inc. from 2008 to 2014 in the Harrisburg offices, where he was a copywriter, swordsman, social media consultant, and trainer before moving into editorial.

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