A little-known aviation fact: airplanes especially far from land, typically crossing large swaths of ocean, are out of range of onshore radio systems and radar.
While satellite communication and navigation technology such as the GPS and satellite telephones enable us to determine their locations, the technology isn't universally employed.
The reason, says Michael Braasch, an Ohio University professor of electrical engineering, is cost.
“Being able to transmit messages through the satellite communication providers is an expense that, up until recently, there wasn’t a great need for, being able to keep track of the aircraft second-by-second,” he said.
But following a bad year for airline safety that saw two wide-bodied aircraft crash over water, killing some 401 passengers and crew under circumstances that remain unclear, international regulators are beginning to rethink that logic.
Although pilots are required to periodically inform air-traffic controller of their current locations along a given flight path, emergency situations that demand split-second decision-making can leave pilots unable to manually provide that information.
In two of the 2014 crashes at sea, communication with the aircraft was lost before pilots were able to report any problems.
Earlier this month, the International Air Transport Association released a report recommending that each aircraft be equipped with an automated position-reporting system that functions independently of the pilots.
But Braasch says some of the member airlines are reluctant to adopt this recommendation.
“It’s mostly just the matter of dealing with the added expense and then putting a system in place that everybody agrees to the format and the standards and things of that nature," he said. "Technologically there’s no issue; we have satellite-based navigation systems such as GPS; we’ve had satellite communication technology for well over 20-25 years now, so technologically this is a complete non-issue.”
Some pilots are also concerned about having an autonomous electrical system on board that could not be disabled in the event of a fire. So far, only the flight data recorder, the so-called black box, is out of the pilots’ control.
Braasch says after the Malaysia Airlines disaster in March, it became clear that something must be done.
“We lost a wide-body airplane and we have no idea where it is, and, in this day and age, that’s just absurd,” he said.
In the meantime, the United States and Europe are preparing to implement a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, or ADS-B, which is designed to periodically broadcast the airplane’s position to air traffic controllers and other nearby aircraft. The system will be mandatory for some aircraft in Europe by 2017 and in the United States by 2020.
Nearly 900 people are dead or missing following air disasters around the world this year, with Southeast Asia taking a particularly heavy hit.
Hundreds of passengers and crew remain unaccounted for in the case of a Malaysia Airlines flight that vanished in March.