Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Flight 370 and security deficiencies

The events surrounding Malaysian airlines flight 370 have sparked discussions about security deficiencies of the air travel in general and of the Malaysian aviation authorities in particular. 

The most important one is the ability to switch aircraft transponders off. Despite the experience of 9/11, when among the first things hijackers did was to switch off transponders, no rules were established to prevent aircraft location transponders from being manually deactivated. It has been reported that manual switching of transponders is a remnant of the early era of avionics, when transponders were not always reliable and needed to be reset to work properly.  However modern avionics do not suffer from such problems, so there is no need for such possibility to exist. On the contrary, it has been suggested that manual deactivation of transponders could serve only unlawful purposes. The tendency to increase reliance on satellite navigation, especially the use of the ADS-B system, will deal with the problem, but not soon on a global scale. At the same time modifying transponders to all aircraft in service would take a significant amount of time and money, which might be unrealistic to demand.

The second one is passport control. Although two of the passports used had been reported to Interpol as stolen and had been registered in its stolen passports database, only very few countries have been reported to check regularly passenger passports against the Interpol database (see more here). However, it is not known if the stolen passports played any role in the accident. Moreover, security expert Bruce Schneier has told CNBC that the deficiencies in passport control millions of passengers traveled every year without any reported security incident – which means that passport control does not represent a security gap, in his opinion. Thus, (even) stricter rules on passport control would not offer much in terms of aviation security – but they would certainly entail higher cost, which airlines would not be willing it at all to bear it, because border control is a State task.

The third problem regards the failure of authorities to intercept a strayed aircraft according to the established ICAO rules (Annex 2). Malaysian military radars had tracked the aircraft, when it had already deviated from its flight plan and re-entered Malaysian airspace. Nevertheless, no fighters took off to recognize the aircraft and intercept it, i.e. bring it to the right course and, as a last resort, force it to land. Following the procedures foreseen by international law could have prevented the aircraft disappearance. See more here.

An interesting summary of the Malaysian shortcomings in handling the incident can be found here.

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