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A better way to find missing planes

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This photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows the Royal Malaysian Navy corvette KD Terengganu and a U.S. Navy MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter conduct a coordinated air and sea search for a missing Malaysian Airlines jet in the Gulf of Thailand.

AP PHOTO/U.S. NAVY, OPERATIONS SPECIALIST 1ST CLASS CLAUDIA FRANCO Enlarge Image

This photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows the Royal Malaysian Navy corvette KD Terengganu and a U.S. Navy MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter conduct a coordinated air and sea search for a missing Malaysian Airlines jet in the Gulf of Thailand.

In a world where rental car companies can track the location of their cars at any given moment, where we can turn a home alarm on or off from the seat of an airliner cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet, the infuriating part of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is our technological powerlessness.

A week ago, the world lost contact with Flight 370. Despite the focus of intelligence agencies from the United States, China and Great Britain, despite satellites and dozens of the world’s most advanced ships and airplanes trained on the search area, we know little more today than we did seven days ago.

Tuesday, reports that the Malaysian Air Force had picked up the plane on radar hundreds of miles to the west of its intended flight path raised hopes. But the Malaysian government quickly refuted the report. Wednesday, satellite images from the Chinese State Science and Technology Commission seemed to show debris. But upon searching, the Vietnamese navy found no debris, and the Chinese government said the satellite images were wrongly disseminated and inaccurate. Thursday, a report said Rolls-Royce, the plane’s engine maker, had received data transmissions from the engine indicating it had operated for at least four hours after the plane’s last radio transmission. But the Malaysian government denied the report.

In such a connected world, how could a 650,000-pound, 200-foot-long jet carrying 239 people simply vanish? And why, with live-streaming technology, are we still dependent on physically retrieving a black box that was cutting-edge technology more than 50 years ago?

The technology is available to install a satellite-based data recording system that transmits key flight data to a safe, ground-based computer network that can be accessed immediately after a plane goes down. But so far, there has been a lack of will — and money — to implement such a system. Some experts estimate it could cost $100,000 to $1 million per plane to install. American Airlines and American Eagle alone have 850 planes in their fleet. Considering how rare it is for a plane to simply disappear like Flight 370, it becomes a matter of cost vs. benefit.

But what’s the cost of the massive search under way? The cost of the airlines’ financial liability? The cost of so many lives potentially lost? If airlines can provide Wi-Fi for $8 per passenger, they should be able to figure out a way to fund a safer system that is affordable.

The airline industry should seriously explore moving toward a technological upgrade. It might not provide all the answers, but it certainly will speed up the search, ease the suffering of bereaved families and yield potentially crucial data about airliner defects.

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