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Did we learn anything from AF447? Can it teach us anything about MH370?

james sparling

In his New York Times Q&A on Saturday's disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, New York Timesreporter Matthew Wald wrote that it took "five days to find most of the wreckage" from Air France 447 after it crashed into the South Atlantic on June 1, 2009.  Actually only about 3 percent of the plane was recovered during the initial search. Nearly all of the wreckage and most of the passengers and crew were lost for 22 months until a search team led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute found the aircraft at a depth of 13,000 feet.  

The most expensive sea search in history, bringing in experts from 13 countries, this recovery effort documented many of the problems that make it difficult to find planes that crash into the sea. The French accident investigation team at the BEA spent more than three years putting together an excellent set of recommendations for airplane manufacturers and airlines that would help solve the problem now confronting the Malaysian search teams. In my interviews for The Rio/Paris Crash, French, American, British and South African investigators who worked on previous sea searches for missing aircraft make it  clear that the aviation industry is a victim of antiquated technology. They suggest better satellite telemetry for aircraft, putting emergency locator beacons on the right frequency to speed detection and installing new technology created by manufacturers like Boeing. Cost factors and regulatory inertia have contributed to this problem that continues to plague the airline industry.

Promptly locating the site of an air crash makes it possible to quickly retrieve victims and bring them to safety. The classic example is US Air Flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River. Technology exists to solve this problem, particularly when a plane ditches. Given the current regulatory environment it is unlikely that this critical problem playing will be solved in the near term. The industry's failure to take action on the recommendations of the French BEA following Air France 447 is one of the reasons why Flight MH370 remains missing.

roger rapoport: 12 March, 2014