Sharing information faster may save lives

Sharing information faster may save lives

Evoking memories of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, an AirAsia plane with 155 passengers and seven crew members on board lost contact with air traffic control on Sunday morning, after the pilots asked to change course to avoid bad weather during a flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.

Search-and-rescue operations are under way.

While the fate of the plane and those on board are still unknown, the two flights have one thing in common - a delay in releasing information.

Contact with MH370 was lost after 1.20am local time, yet Malaysia Airlines did not respond until four hours later. The last communication with QZ8501 was at 6.17am, yet the first news that it was missing was not released until four hours later.

Under pressure, the Malaysian government vowed to investigate why there had been a delay in releasing the news about MH370, yet no explanation has been forthcoming as yet. AirAsia will also need to explain its delay in releasing the information.

No airline is indifferent to flight security, which is key to passengers placing their trust in it. And it may take some time for an airline to confirm whether a flight is in trouble.

However, the information-sharing mechanism should be improved. Once something abnormal happens, an airline needs to share information as early as possible, so that any coordinated rescue effort can be launched as soon as possible.

An airline's initial reaction to any problem is to try and solve it with the airline's own resources, or try to find ways to limit damage to public confidence. As a result, it generally takes several hours for an airline to decide if it needs help, but that delay may cost lives.

Airline companies should no longer shoulder the responsibility for flight security alone.

What is needed is an emergency-response mechanism, whereby airlines collect information about flights and relay it to the authorities in a timely manner, so that search or rescue efforts can be launched in a timely manner when necessary.

If possible, the mechanism should include military forces and international organisations too.

Such a mechanism will entail costs and require closer coordination among governments and airline companies, but it is high time the international community acts to ensure safer skies.

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