March 12, 2014

Tech tools missing in search

From passport checks to Wi-fi, much could have been done better.

Pull yourself away from the nonstop TV news about the lost Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 for just a few minutes. Let’s look back at what we’ve just learned about our 21st-century selves.

We are surrounded by our personal high-tech indulgences and necessities. We drive cars with OnStar technology that enables someone to locate us every moment. Our GPS devices enable us to find any place, any time.

Our smartphones, tablets and laptops can talk to one another anywhere on Earth via Wi-Fi that links with orbiting satellites and stores data in clouds.

But we have hunted for Malaysia Flight 370 almost the same way we hunted for Amelia Earhart’s plane.

Radar technology is old and hasn’t helped much. The airplane’s transponder (which at least tells the ground where it is) was manually turned off or at least stopped functioning in mid-flight.

The experts told us the only sure way to know what happened to the plane is to find it. Maybe we’ll find the black box that can tell us what really happened to the plane.

One more tech gap is perhaps even more off-putting and terrifying. In many exotic places around the planet, we are still protecting ourselves from the possibility that evil-doers may be traveling with fake identities and stolen passports about as well as we protected ourselves in the run-up to Sept. 11, 2001.

Malaysia Airlines employees apparently failed to check manually their daily worldwide list of stolen passports and compare them with their Flight 370 manifest. Now we know two passengers were not the Europeans their passports said they were — they were Iranians, using passports the world knew were stolen in Thailand.

Why haven’t our leaders and experts done a better job of safeguarding us with 21st-century travel technology when we fly? Why haven’t those of us in the news media alerted the post-9/11 world to these gaps?

Airline computer systems should be reprogrammed so passengers using stolen passports will be red-flagged and prevented from boarding a plane. Our safety cannot depend upon an airline employee’s human error, laziness or criminal indifference.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post’s Brian Fung published an important and informative article that showed us there is more world and airline industry officials can and should be doing.

While airlines in the United States are required to have an emergency locator transmitter, the International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets global standards for emergency locator transmitters, cannot mandate that all countries require their use by airlines.

“The Federal Aviation Administration wants to transition to a next-generation air traffic control system that uses satellites to keep tabs on planes,” Fung reported.

The new technologycan monitor wide expanses, including oceans.

It can work along with another system called “automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast,” in planes and can use satellites to transmit system information instantly back to air controllers.

In the meantime, Flight 370 passengers could have used cellphones to transmit info via Wi-Fi, except for one problem: Their plane didn’t have Wi-Fi.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, is a veteran Washington journalist. martin.schram@gmail.com

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