MH370: It’s not a small world after all

by Aaron Karp
Apr 07, 2014

Will MH370 hasten the transition to satellite-based navigation?

The St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line started ferrying a small number of passengers between the neighboring Florida cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa in 1914, thus inaugurating commercial airline service. In the century since the tiny airline began operations—and particularly since commercial jet travel took off in the late 1950s—airlines have, more than any other human innovation, made the world seem to be much smaller than it is.

I take for granted the ability to wake up and have breakfast in Washington DC, head to the airport and just a few hours later be having a late lunch or early dinner in Los Angeles. For most of human history, traversing North America was a treacherous journey that took many, many weeks to accomplish—if it could even be accomplished safely at all. Even gargantuan trips, such as New York to Singapore, now can be routinely accomplished within a single day by jet aircraft.

But the painstaking search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared a month ago, has starkly revealed how illusory this “small world” commercial aviation seemingly created is. The Indian Ocean, where officials believe MH370 went down, covers an area of 73.56 million square kilometers, or 28.35 million square miles. And it is just the third-largest of Earth’s oceans, dwarfed by the Atlantic Ocean (106.4 million square kilometers/41.08 million square miles), which itself is dwarfed by the immense Pacific Ocean (165.25 million square kilometers/63.78 million square miles).

How can a commercial airliner go missing for weeks without a scrap found? While such an occurrence was unimaginable before March 8, it now seems amazing that it hasn’t happened before when you consider the above numbers. And that’s particularly so when you consider how sluggish the global airline and air traffic management industries have been to transition to satellite navigation.

With air traffic control still largely relying on ground-based radar to track flights, the truth is commercial aircraft temporarily “disappear” every hour of every day all over the world.

Will MH370 hasten the transition to satellite-based navigation? I have to say I’m skeptical; the money that needs to be available and the complicated politics that have to be overcome to truly make that transition happen are almost as daunting as the vast size of the Indian Ocean. As we are painfully finding out, commercial aviation navigation is still largely rooted in the 20th Century. Without full satellite coverage to track airliners, the world really will remain a very large place, sometimes scarily so.

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