Does missing AirAsia plane highlight need for improved tracking technology?

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online
As the search for AirAsia flight QZ8501 continued Monday afternoon, the question on a lot of people’s mind is: in an age in which GPS technology is commonplace and fleets of intelligence-gathering satellites orbit the Earth, how can we lose track of an entire airplane?
The same questions were pondered following the March disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, and several months later, neither the missing plane nor the answers we’re seeking have been found. In a new Bloomberg Businessweek article, Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, offers some insight into the incidents.
According to Kurlantzick, the odds of any one person boarding a flight and dying in a plane crash are approximately one in 11 million. Yet there have been three recent incidents involving Malaysian planes, and he said that these events also “point to several disturbing trends that raise the question of whether flying in peninsular Southeast Asia is completely safe.”
“The air market in the region has embraced low-cost carriers, leading to a proliferation of flights throughout Southeast Asia, stretching air traffic controllers, and possibly allowing some airlines to expand too rapidly,” he explained. “Indonesian carriers, air traffic controllers, and Indonesian airspace in general have become notorious for weak safety regulations.”
Kurlantzick credits AirAsia with responding to the ongoing crisis more quickly than the state-run Malaysian Airlines, and pointed out that their safety record has been “mostly solid.” However, he also noted that their personnel tend to have less experience, and that the political climate there will likely complicate search-and-rescue operations and the investigation that will follow.
AirAsia flight QZ8501 departed from the Indonesian city of Surabaya en route to Singapore on Sunday morning, and approximately 40 minutes after it took off, air traffic control personnel lost contact with it over the Java Sea, CBS News reported. The plane vanished suddenly, suggesting that weather may have been a factor, and there had been severe thunderstorms in the area.
According to, Indonesia has asked the US, UK and France for assistance with sonar technology to search underwater. In addition, former US National Transportation Safety Board managing director Peter Goelz said that now investigators should have compiled enough radar and satellite data to narrow down a more precise location where they can target their search.
The airspace in southeastern Asia is filled with “mountains, chaotic weather, and tough approach paths,” Kurlantzick explained, and while the pilot “had about 6,000 hours of flight experience on the Airbus plane he was flying,” he added that it was “unclear whether he had experience flying at 34,000 feet or higher, where he was trying to take the plane to avoid bad weather.”
The question that continues to surround these missing flights, however, is how do we lose track of them in an era dominated by technology. Standard aircraft tracking procedures involve two radar systems, a primary and a secondary, BBC News explained.
The primary radar only shows approximate position using reflected radio signals, while the secondary one (which relies on targets being equipped with a transponder) requests additional data from the aircraft, including its identity and altitude. However, once an aircraft is over 150 miles out to sea, radar coverage fades and the crew keeps in touch with air traffic control and other aircraft through the use of high-frequency radio.
While planes can be tracked using GPS, BBC News said that the technology is only used to show pilots their position on a map, and the information is not usually shared with air traffic control. Some modern planes can “uplink” GPS data to satellite tracking services, but this is an expensive process that is typically used exclusively in remote areas with no radar coverage.
“Over the next decade, a new system called ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast) is expected to replace radar as the primary surveillance method for air traffic control,” the British news organization added. “ADS-B will see aircraft work out their position using GPS and then relay data to the ground and other planes. But, as with existing secondary radar, ADS-B coverage does not extend over the oceans.”
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