Tightening up security
Catastrophe often is a catalyst for reform, no more so than in the world of commercial aviation. Lessons learned from painstaking investigations of crashes regularly are rolled into new regulations and technology to make air travel ever safer.
That makes it all the more remarkable that in 2014, a technologically sophisticated intercontinental jet airliner can simply disappear for weeks, as Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has done.
This case is unusual, of course, but hundreds of jets fly over vast stretches of open ocean every day. And it isn't the first time that a big jet has gone missing.
On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447, an Airbus 330 jumbo jet en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean more than 500 miles from the West African coast in about 13,000 feet of water. Searchers quickly found some debris and two bodies, but the main body of the aircraft and its "black box" data and voice recorders were not found until May 2011.
The Air France crash was nearly eight years after terrorists hijacked four jetliners in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 and turned off the aircraft's transponders - the devices that continuously report location, speed and altitude to the air traffic control system.
It's remarkable that there is no mandate for transponders to operate automatically, especially since the technology readily is available. They must be turned off when planes are at terminals to prevent electronic clutter in ground control systems. But they easily could be triggered by an aircraft's speed or some other parameter.
And no spot on earth is remote to fleets of satellites. Protocols should be developed to ensure origin-to-destination tracking of every transoceanic flight.
Engineers undoubtedly could devise any number of other methods to ensure that commercial aircraft are easy to find, whether aloft or after a crash or terrorist incident.
The Malaysia Airlines case is a mystery, but there is no mystery as to the role it should play in driving future improvements to airline safety.