WASHINGTON — As the search continues for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the aviation industry is working to make sure that a plane will never be lost again during an over-water flight, but those efforts may take up to two years to finish.
Malaysia's Boeing 777-200ER, which went missing March 8 with 239 people aboard, sparked a worldwide outcry over the inability to pinpoint planes at all times.
But the challenges include minimal government radar over oceans, the airline expense of maintaining satellite links with planes, and the lack of government requirements that airlines maintain frequent enough contact to find a lost plane.
Airlines and government regulators worldwide have agreed to improve flight tracking voluntarily, and then with formal rules, with the following steps:
• May 12-13: Airlines represented by the International Air Transport Association agreed to voluntarily improve tracking, with details to be determined.
• June 11-13: An airline task force met with 16 vendors of equipment and services, to gauge what is available to track flights. The task force is also surveying airlines to find out how many already track flights.
• September: The task force plans to make recommendations to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a branch of the United Nations that suggests policies to governments, about how to better track flights.
• February 2015: ICAO will hold a high-level conference to begin negotiating standards for governments to require better tracking, with a goal of completing the rule within two years.
"That is a very fast track for a global rule, but I think it's very much achievable," Nancy Graham, director of ICAO's air navigation bureau, told the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area. "It will give us the basis upon which to begin to develop the standard, with some basic understanding of how the community wants to see it work."
Kenneth Quinn, a lawyer at Pillsbury Winthrop, asked whether two years will test the patience of the traveling public.
"We already know that some airlines aren't even waiting for that," Graham said, referring to airlines that already track flights or plan to soon.
"I'm saying that the airlines are beginning to put that in place now, turning on what is on board the airplane now," she said. "I think there will be some that will need that push. But I don't think the vast majority will wait two years."
Airlines and Boeing are eager to find the Malaysia plane so they can figure out what went wrong — whether it crashed from a mechanical problem or someone brought it down intentionally. But for answers, experts need voice- and flight-data recorders aboard the plane, and that's what makes finding it so important.
"You have to take action, because inaction is not adequate," said Jon Beatty, CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, which studies aviation and makes recommendations.
Duane Woerth, a former U.S. ambassador to ICAO and a former president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said air-traffic control over oceans is "grossly inadequate."
"The world was very astounded to find out that people didn't know where the airplanes are," he said.
One open question is how long a search should last, given that the Malaysia effort has already cost tens of millions of dollars, with no end in sight.
"We really don't have a precedent for how long to look," said Earl Weener, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. "We've have airplanes disappear. But they have not been of the size and the ability of this airplane. So that is a great question. No answer."
Most wide-body planes that fly across oceans send out signals about where they are, either from transponders for radar or maintenance information relayed by satellite. A tricky part of the Malaysia case is that both systems stopped sending regular signals, either because they were turned off or there was a catastrophic problem.
Some airlines now ignore flight tracking, because of a lack of either technology or policy. Officials studying the issue didn't say how many. But because planes travel hundreds of miles per hour, signals must be sent every few minutes to help locate a plane precisely.
"Not all airlines know where (their planes) are," Graham said. "They need to turn it on and agree to some concept of operation."
ICAO already says that government regulators must require their airlines to track their planes, but Graham said the provision isn't enforced.
"So we do have a requirement, but it's a very soft requirement, and it's never been enforced," she said.
For now, industry experts are gathering information about what sort of tracking is currently employed and planning recommendations for improvements with the help of air-traffic control that governments provide.
"We need to know where the gaps are so we can prioritize those in our recommendations," says Di Reimold, project manager for the airlines' tracking task force. "Even in today's environment, what we certainly see is a very complete quilt in some parts of the world and a very inexact fabric in other parts of the world."