Lost in Airspace

MH370’s Humbling Reminder about Technology–and its Operators

This piece originally appeared on www.foreignaffairs.com, March 20, 2014

The evolving tale of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 gets stranger by the minute.  Most likely it will change yet again by the time you finish reading this.  But whatever the ultimate solution to the mystery may be, it is not too early to start asking what it means.

Let’s start with the facts as we think we know them at the moment.  First, there was no outward indication that anything untoward was happening aboard MH370 before it went silent.  Second, shortly after it went silent it began to deviate dramatically from its preprogrammed flight path—again, with no indication of trouble whatsoever.  Third, it managed to cross the Malay Peninsula and head into the Strait of Malacca without attracting any attention or triggering any response before it disappeared from radar.  Fourth, according to the British firm Inmarsat, more than seven hours after departing from Kuala Lumpur it was still airborne somewhere in a giant arc stretching from the southeastern Indian Ocean to Kazakhstan.

One clear lesson here, as Jessica Trisko Darden has recently argued, is that the countries of Southeast Asia are incapable of monitoring, let alone controlling, their airspace.  Nor are they capable of mounting a swift, coordinated search.  They excel, however, at blaming each other.

But there are larger lessons as well—lessons of more than just regional significance.

First, the good news.  There is no evidence, and a rapidly dwindling likelihood, that MH370 vanished as a result of malfunction.  The hardware appears to have worked flawlessly.  There is a reason why modern airliners generally do not fall out of the sky of their own accord: they are marvels of engineering.  The odds of being in a fatal commercial flight are 1 in 3.4 million, and fewer than 1 in 4 of those are the result of mechanical failure.  The only onboard systems whose performance is in question in this case are the transponder, which enables ground operators to identify the aircraft and provides crucial flight information, and the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which monitors system health and automatically relays faults to maintenance bases.  These stopped working within minutes of the crew’s final, perfectly routine radio contact with ground controllers at 01h19 on the morning of March 8.  It seems increasingly certain that they were switched off deliberately.

As far as we can tell, all of the ground-based hardware worked as well.  Primary radars, secondary radars, and radio communications all worked as designed, and held up their end of the bargain insofar as maintaining contact with MH370 is concerned. We are good at technology, and getting better all the time.  The Huffington Post notwithstanding, there is no valid comparison between MH370 and Amelia Earhart.  Not only was MH370 operating in a modern well-monitored environment, a modern Boeing 777’s avionics make her vintage Lockheed Electra’s look like child’s play.

Next, the bad news.  While the mechanical systems worked well, the human systems failed repeatedly, both at the individual and group levels.  If the disappearance of MH370 was deliberate, then someone—crew member or hijacker—was a certifiable sociopath.  Malaysian military radar operators failed to notice, misperceived, or wilfully ignored its radar track as it headed westward.  Thai radar operators noticed it, but failed to report it because no one askedOther countries may have failed to notice or report radar tracks as well because of incompetence, flawed procedures, or fear of embarrassment.  For days after the plane disappeared there was ample information available indicating that the jet had headed toward the Indian Ocean, but Malaysia and an increasing number of other countries continued to look for it in the Gulf of Thailand.  Officials have obviously bungled messaging and communications, and have given scant reason to hope that they haven’t bungled the search and investigation as well.

Now for the even worse news: much of this could have been prevented.  As Gregg Easterbrook has noted, it is almost inconceivable that almost thirteen years after 9/11 pilots can still turn off transponders.  (In those rare circumstances when it might be desirable to turn off a transponder, there is no technical obstacle to requiring a ground-based signal to do it.)  There is an eight-year-old technology available—Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B—that provides more detailed and more reliable flight and positioning information, but while MH370 had it, and while amateurs on the ground picked up its signal, air traffic controllers did not.  Countries have proven slow to embrace it.  In the United States, the FAA does not expect to adopt it before 2020.  Continuous-broadcast GPS is another readily-available technology that some airlines use to monitor their fleets, but as Peter Parrish, vice-president of operations for Latitude Technologies has lamented, “For some reason, the major carriers continue to rely exclusively on old technology to track their aircraft when one of our boxes could be tucked into an out-of-the-way spot on the aircraft to report location on a continuous basis, including on an accelerated basis right up to the point of impact in the event of a crash.”

In one sense, this worse news is not surprising.  While technology advances by leaps and bounds, improvement in our mental capacity to perceive and analyze the world takes place on an evolutionary timescale.  Cognitive, affective, bureaucratic, social, and cultural barriers to learning are ubiquitous. I have spent most of my professional career trying to understand why national leaders—who are almost always very smart people—make so many mistakes, and the answer is that they are human.  As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said to me toward the end of his life, “I’ve met and worked with a good many people whose names are in the history books or in the headlines.  I have never met a demigod or a superman.  I have only seen relatively ordinary men and women groping to deal with the problems with which they are faced.”

We have come to appreciate in the nuclear age that our rapidly increasing technological sophistication—which has brought to us benefits such as safe, reliable air travel—carries with it also great potential cost, not only in the form of our ability to destroy, but, as my colleague Thomas Homer-Dixon has pointed out, in the form of vulnerable, tightly-connected, inadequately resilient systems.  What we have great difficulty appreciating, apparently, is that the human element is often the weakest link in those systems.  Academic political science, by and large, has not helped.  To the extent that leaders are trained in or advised on international politics at all, they are generally encouraged to assume that their counterparts elsewhere are fully-informed; that they are “rational”; that they value political survival above all else; and that with enough “credible” threats or incentives they can always be “deterred” or “compelled.”  They are not encouraged to think of them—or of themselves, for that matter—as ill-informed, confused, emotional, fallible, and perhaps even slightly mad some of the time.  Nor are they encouraged to think of the complex departments, ministries, agencies, and militaries over which they have nominal authority as reliably dysfunctional to at least a certain extent one hundred percent of the time.

In a tense, heavily-armed region such as East or Southeast Asia, it would be a good idea for leaders to reflect on the limited capacities of individuals and organizations.  The bizarre story of MH370 should make the importance of that painfully clear.