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Mystery of missing flight must be solved

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One part of the mystery solved, another continues to build.

Malaysia’s prime minister ended the rankest speculation with the announcement Monday that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was likely lost in the southern Indian Ocean.

It was, at least, a merciful gesture for loved ones of the 239 passengers and crew members after more than two weeks of agonizing over how and why a Boeing 777 could simply vanish — and whether they should hold out hope for a miracle.

A statement the airline sent to relatives said an analysis concluded that "none of those on board survived." The heartbreaking news let the families move on to a new phase of their vigil.

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s announcement also should end conjecture over certain implausible scenarios, like those envisioning a terrorist plot to spirit the airliner to a host country. Saturation media coverage of the disappearance has often resembled a carnival side show, with a CNN host at one point asking a panel of supposed experts whether the plane might have been swallowed by a black hole or a Bermuda Triangle-like force.

Black hole, no; immense swath of ocean, yes.

The detective work to piece together why the Beijing-bound plane went drastically off course is no closer to definitive answers, however.

Why did the plane’s transponder abruptly go quiet as the plane neared Vietnamese airspace? Was there hidden meaning to the first officer’s last words: "All right, good night"?

Was the crew overcome by a suddenly depressurized cabin? Why didn’t passengers make any cellphone calls? Did lithium batteries in the plane’s cargo hold ignite?

The answers are significant to both the flying public and an airline industry that desperately wants to address lingering doubts about safety. The Boeing 777 has a remarkable safety record, with only two serious mishaps among hundreds of aircraft over 19 years. If it has an undiscovered vulnerability, analyzing that could save lives in the future.

The search for wreckage has also produced remarkable cooperation among 26 countries — including some bitter antagonists — that have flooded the search zone with an armada of ships, as well as air and satellite surveillance.

We hope to see that international cooperation continue on the technology front. The lead nations should address how a wide-body aircraft bristling with electronics could indeed seem to enter a Twilight Zone.

They should address why, in today’s live-streaming world, solving the mystery of Flight MH370 depends on retrieval of the aircraft’s flight-data recorder. It shouldn’t, entirely. The condition of the wreckage and the black box (which, by the way, is orange) will have important clues.

But technology leaders should advance satellite-based systems that could track an errant aircraft and pinpoint the location of a crash. In Flight MH370’s case, that could have advanced the investigation by 16 days and cut short the maddening guesswork over the fate of those lost at sea.

 

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