At press time, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, operating on a Boeing 777-200, had been missing for 12 days after leaving Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia bound for Beijing, China. The flight was carrying a total number of 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers, and of course our thoughts and prayers go out to those on the flight and their relatives and loved ones.
Speculation as to the whereabouts of the plane and its passengers has run the gamut from the simple to the absurd, and we don’t presume to know any more than anyone else about the fate of flight 370. We do, however, know the location of the 333-meter by 38-meter MSC Fantasia. At press time the Panama-flagged vessel had left her last port of call, Heraklion, Greece, and was underway at 11.7 knots on her way to Haifa, Israel, after a presumably pleasant cruise through the Mediterranean, Aegean and Ionian Seas.
We know this because, after 9/11, the development and implementation of maritime AIS transitioned from a communication and collision avoidance system to a maritime security necessity, and in 2002 IMO mandated a class A transceiver for most large vessels over 300 GT on international voyages, including cruise ships. These vessels can now be tracked and identified through their onboard AIS systems.
There are roughly 20,000 commercial airliners in service worldwide, from large widebody jets like the 777 to small regional aircraft. Meanwhile, based on data from 2011, there are more than 50,000 ships worldwide of 500 GT or greater. Each of those ships is required to carry AIS, and can be located, in many instances, by shore-based AIS stations, and even satellite-based AIS.
It’s still a big ocean, but it’s getting smaller with the help of technology. It’s also a dangerous place, some parts more than others, as is described by John-Clark Levin on page 31 of this issue. While the carriage of AIS is mandated for vessels of greater than 300 GT engaged in international trade, the system can be shut down or disabled by unwelcome guests (or the crew), and enforcement while a ship is in transit is virtually impossible. Still, the system works well, and the technology is improving with each generation.
Apparently, some commercial airliners are equipped with a similar (although not mandatory) system. Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) provides data that can be aggregated with schedule and flight status data from airlines and airports to track a passenger jet’s speed, altitude, heading and speed, as well as showing the international call sign and a track of the plane’s progress. Roughly 60 percent of all passenger aircraft (70 percent in Europe, 30 percent in the US) are equipped with an ADS-B transponder (the Boeing 777 is one of those planes).
Whatever the sad fate of flight 370, it won’t be the same as that of the famous ghost ship Marie Celeste or, more recently, the Lyubov Orlova, which threw off her shackles on the way to the breakers and wandered the North Atlantic for a year. While neither maritime AIS nor aviation-based ADS-B are foolproof, the great strides made in technology every year continue to make the world a smaller, safer place, despite some bad news now and then.