Accessibility links

As MH370 Search Resumes, Plans for Improving Air Traffic Control in Asia

  • Ron Corben

FILE - A general view shows the Air Traffic Control Center at the Hong Kong Airport.

FILE - A general view shows the Air Traffic Control Center at the Hong Kong Airport.

The search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared in March, is set to resume in October, after Australian air safety experts narrowed the region believed to be the aircraft's possible final resting place. The search comes as analysts say a more comprehensive radar surveillance system is needed in Asia to avoid a repeat of the disaster.

The restart of the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 is to get underway with Australian-sponsored vessels undertaking deep sea sonar investigations in the Indian Ocean off Western Australia.

Mystery still surrounds Flight MH370, which disappeared on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew while on a scheduled flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

Despite an intensive search by eight nations, including Australia, China, Malaysia, the United States, Britain, Japan and South Korea, the search has failed to locate the aircraft or debris.

Australia's Transport Safety Bureau has revised the aircraft's possible location to further south in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia.

Transport safety investigators say the new search centers on waters up to 6.3 kilometers deep. Search teams had relied on Inmarsat satellite data exchanges along an arc of the Indian Ocean west of the state capital of Perth.

The tragedy, said Hsin Chen Chung, head of the Singapore-based Air Traffic Management Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University, highlights the need for a more comprehensive radar system across the Asia Pacific.

"The problem being highlighted due to the Malaysian 370 tragedy is the lack of complete surveillance and communication coverage. This is because the oceanic area and some rugged terrain prevented the full deployment of the ground-based radar surveillance system. So we have to find a way to develop total global or regional complete coverage," said Hsin.

A key shortcoming is that existing land-based radar coverage reaches no more than 400 kilometers to sea.

Hsin said Asian countries could adopt models such as the European-based Euro-Control, which is able to implement regional air traffic flow management.

But he said setting up a regional satellite surveillance body is likely to face resistance from regional governments that may need to surrender control over air traffic management in such a region-wide system.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts air passenger traffic in Asia-Pacific will grow by 5.7 percent per year in the coming years, compared with 3.9 per cent in Europe and 3.6 per cent in North America.

That means that by 2030, Asia-Pacific air traffic volume is expected to have tripled from today's levels. Hsin said such growth may lead to air traffic "gridlock" unless regional governments step up coordination in flight management.

“We foresee that unless that collectively we do something, as fast as possible to solve the capacity demand balance and solve the efficiency problem we will endure unacceptable delays [at airports]. The potential gridlock situation for this region could happen if we don't do anything starting from now," said Hsin.

Brendan Sobie, a chief analyst with the Center for Aviation, an aviation consultant group, said improvements to existing air management systems can be applied to meet rising demands especially to ground control operations.

"Runway congestion which is a serious issue - obviously [at] airports like Jakarta, but there are opportunities to improve the situation by simply implementing better technology and educating air traffic controllers so that they can handle the kind of volumes that airports in the other regions like Europe handle with the same kind of runway capacity," said Sobie.

Analysts say the region's aviation industry needs to draw key lessons from the MH370 tragedy, especially in acknowledging the limits of modern aviation technology and communication practices that hindered search efforts in the hours after the aircraft disappeared.

Analysts say such shortcomings highlight the need for a satellite linked global positioning system (GPS) in aircraft cockpits, along with better air traffic control radar.