Missing MH370: Malaysia jet saga highlights doubts over air traffic radar

Missing MH370: Malaysia jet saga highlights doubts over air traffic radar

KUALA LUMPUR - The ease with which a big jetliner melted into the ether after vanishing from Malaysian radar illustrates an uncomfortable paradox about modern aviation: state-of-the-art airplanes rely on ageing ground infrastructure to tell them where to go.

While satellites shape almost every aspect of modern life, the use of radar and radio in the cockpit has, for many pilots, changed little since before the jet engine was first flown.

Even though Malaysia suspects someone may have hidden its tracks, the inability of 26 nations to find a 250-tonne Boeing 777 has shocked an increasingly connected world and exposed flaws in the use of radar, which fades over oceans and deserts.

"It's not very accurate. The world's moved a bit further along," said Mr Don Thoma, president of Aireon, a venture launched by US-based mobile satellite communications company Iridium and the Canadian air traffic control authority in 2012 to offer space-based tracking of planes.

"We track our cars, we track our kids' cell phones, but we can't track airplanes when they are over oceans or other remote areas," he said.

Satellites provide the obvious answer, say experts.

"The way to go is satellite-based navigation and communication. In navigation, we need to get away from ground-based radar and in communications we need to get away from radios," said radar expert and aviation consultant Hans Weber.

Inefficiencies caused by radar are costing travellers money through increased fares and penalising economies through extra delays, according to those who back an ambitious but potentially costly overhaul of the world's major aviation routes.

"Since controllers use voice communication, they have to leave more space between planes because of the risk of losing contact," said Mr Weber, who heads TECOP International, a US-based consultancy.

Two mammoth proposals for new airspace systems in the United States and European Union could change all that, with hefty profits at stake for aerospace firms on both sides of the Atlantic, though critics say the schemes are wasteful and late.

The US aerospace industry has been pressing for years for a US$40 billion overhaul of air traffic control systems, but the cost and complexity of the undertaking have slowed the effort and Congress has cut funding repeatedly.

The Next-Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, is due to be fully implemented in 2025, but automatic US federal spending cuts due to resume in 2016 could delay that, the industry says.

Parts of the system are already in place, such as the ADS-B surveillance system now installed in many cockpits, but others have lagged due to funding constraints.

Lockheed Martin, Harris Corp, Exelis Inc and Raytheon are among key contractors.

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