A woman writes a message of hope for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on a banner at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS
A woman writes a message of hope for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on a banner at Kuala Lumpur International Airport last week. Picture: REUTERS

IT HAS been nearly a week since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over — well, no-one is quite sure where.

Malaysian officials over the past several days expanded their search area to a mind-boggling 43,452 km², on both air and land, spanning both sides of the Malay Peninsula.

Even with an international fleet of more than 42 ships and 39 aircraft on the scene, the case of this missing aircraft "is rapidly becoming one of the great mysteries of all time", said David Gallo, an experienced hunter of plane wreckage with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

This was an avoidable mystery.

There are eminently feasible ways to keep track of commercial aircraft, and it is inexcusable that they are not being used.

In fact, they are not operating even in the US. This country’s air traffic control system still relies largely on decades-old radar networks, which have limitations.

The Malaysia Airlines case shows one problem: it is hard to track aircraft in remote areas, land or sea. A satellite-based tracking system US authorities are installing will help, but it will not be finished until at least 2020. The US should at least stick to its timeline.

International aviation authorities, meanwhile, should insist on the deployment of aircraft technology that transmits information in an emergency. That could require new beacons to cover remote areas and satellite broadcasting technology on aircraft. This is reasonable: there’s no excuse for iPhones to be more findable than downed aircraft.

There would be a cost to the upgrade. But there is a huge cost, financially and psychically, in launching an armada on a highly speculative hunt when a jetliner is suspected of crashing into an ocean. This isn’t a new lesson.

In a feat of undersea exploration, Gallo led a team that recovered the black boxes from a downed Air France jet in 2011 — two years after the aircraft had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on its way from Brazil to France.

Now, three years later, the world is again at a loss.

There is simply no reason, given the technology that is available at present, that it should be just as possible for an airliner to vanish today over the Pacific as it was for aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart nearly 80 years ago, when she tried to make a circumnavigational flight of the globe in 1937.

Washington DC, March 14