Mystery of MH370 hits aviation safety

The lax passport controls and imprecise tracking of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight shake our faith in aviation security in the modern era.

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While the mystery of exactly what happened to Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 continues to puzzle everyone from rescue services and aviation officials through to the friends and families of those on board, some of the information that has emerged from the incident has been deeply unsettling because of its implications for aviation generally.

Aviation security has never been the same since the events of September 11, 2001 – and for good reason. The murderous ingenuity of a handful of zealots exposed a vulnerability that cost the lives of thousands of people. Further attempts to exploit similar weaknesses are the reason why passengers cannot carry any more than token quantities of liquids on flights and, in some countries, have to have their footwear X-rayed before being allowed on board.

For the most part, passengers endure these strictures with a weary resignation, reconciling it as being as much a part of modern aviation as jetlag and accepting it as the price of staying safe.

So when the news that MH370 was missing first emerged, most regular international travellers would have expected the flight’s progress would have been closely tracked so that where it disappeared could be precisely determined, substantially narrowing the search area. They would also have believed that no passenger would have boarded without having their passports scanned and their identities verified.

All this explains why it was so unsettling to learn that little such tracking takes place, leaving the Malaysian aviation authorities that are leading the search uncertain whether the aircraft might have crashed in the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea or even the Strait of Malacca, creating a mammoth search zone. That reaction was exacerbated by the news that two of the passengers were travelling on Italian and Austrian passports that had been reported stolen long before but the validity of which was not assessed during the standard check-in process at Kuala Lumpur.

When the mystery of MH370 is resolved, lessons need to be learnt from this tragedy. Simple measures such as comparing passports at check-in against Interpol’s database of lost or stolen travel documents – as the UAE, US and UK do regularly – ought to be adopted universally. This will help bolster faith in the aviation security.