Airline Security Failures Emerge in Search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370

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A Royal Malaysian Air Force Navigator captain Izam Fareq Hassan (R) talks with his team members onboard a Malaysian Air Force CN235 aircraft during a search and rescue operation.
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In the months following September 11, 2001, airport security changed dramatically across the world.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, mandated new, global standards, designed to ensure that all countries met at least minimum requirements for airport and airline security.

The latest news regarding Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has aviation security analyst Chris Yates wondering whether the country was meeting even those minimum standards.

Over the weekend, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak acknowledged that, according to satellite and radar data, the flight was likely deliberately diverted. The country's defense minister also announced that the plane's signaling system was disabled before the pilot's final message to air traffic control.

Whoever was responsible for disabling Flight 370's signaling systems seems to have understood that a blind spot could be created in the skies. 

"Essentially this airplane became a whole in the sky immediately when the systems that identify it were turned off aboard," says Yates. "Quite clearly, there is a significant issue here that has effectively blindsided the investigators looking into the disappearance of this airplane."

For safety reasons, Yates says that all of the systems on board an aircraft can be turned off separately. If there were an electrical fire, for example, Yates says things like the signaling system would need to be shutdown to contain the fire and preserve the circuitry of other systems. 

But disabling a signaling system—which was done in the case of Flight 370—would raise suspicion on board among the crew. 

"It's not something that can quietly be done so it has to have been done deliberately," says Yates. "The Malaysian prime minster said as much on Saturday when he made his dramatic announcement that the first of the ACARS system, the data transfer, if you will, between the aircraft and ground, had been deliberately turned off. Subsequently, the transponder system was turned off. Therein lies the debate—why on Earth do you need to do that? Why on Earth was it done, and what happened to the aircraft after?"

Yates says that once the systems were turned off, the Malaysian military should have tracked the aircraft to identify where it was going. If the radar indicated that the flight was still air born and going in a different direction, Yates says that should have signaled that all was not well.

"That should have raised a warning bell that something was awry—ultimately a fighter jet should have been lofted and the ultimate step taken of shooting the aircraft down if it wasn't responding," says Yates. "That is the process that has been in place since 9/11 amongst all countries in the world—if you have a jet flying toward you at a rate of knots with no apparent person in control, it is shot down."

Yates says that in the end, the failure may line with Malaysia's control of the airspace. 

"In other words, was someone actually looking at the radar screens at the time? Were they actually paying any due attention to anything that was coming at them?" asks Yates. "Or was it just a case of something like, 'This hasn't happened before and it's probably not going to happen so why do I as a radar person need to pay any attention at all times?'"

While some are speculating that the plane was deliberately taken off course and landed at an unknown location, Yates says that's not the only theory.

"The other assumption of course is that the co-pilot or the pilot might well have been intent on committing suicide and taking the plane and all of its passengers with him," he says. "We simply don't know at the moment the whereabouts of the plane, and because of that the search continues as to the possible location, whether it be on a runway somewhere—which I happen to think it isn't, by the way—or whether indeed it has crashed into either jungle or at sea. Of the two, I come down on the latter."

While Yates finds it unlikely that the plane deliberately landed safely somewhere, our partners at WNYC used runway data from around the world to determine that the plane could have landed on one of 634 runways across 26 different countries (see map below).

"Most of these runways are at large international airports or at the sort of airstrip that you're never going to land a 777 without people seeing it," says  Noah Veltman, developer and journalist with the WNYC Data News team. "But it's not necessarily the case for all of them—many of them are in remote areas, so it's one of many things we just wouldn't know."

Yates says that while it is theoretically possible that Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 landed safely at a remote location, he says it is unlikely because no one has come forward to claim responsibility for the incident. 

"That leads me to believe that this is not an event that is going to end happily at all," adds Yates. 

Check out WNYC's interactive map below.