Editorial Board

The Hard Truth About Malaysia 370

Photographer: Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images

Modern aviation may be the safest complex system ever devised. Each day, 100,000 flights take off and land with prosaic regularity. Accidents are so rare that, almost by definition, they mean something unprecedented has happened.

The unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 -- which occurred almost two years ago, presumably killing all 239 people aboard -- is by any definition unprecedented. And despite some tantalizing hints, its fate remains utterly mysterious. As such, it makes a poor basis for dramatic changes in public policy. Modern planes are so safe that adding yet more rules and requirements in response to an incomprehensible tragedy could very well make things worse.

Consider proposals to mandate tamper-proof transponders. That sounds prudent: Someone aboard Flight 370 evidently switched off its communications systems, taking it off the grid. But pilots may have perfectly valid reasons for turning a transponder off, such as recovering from a malfunction or preventing overheating. American regulators acknowledged as much last year when they argued that the risks of tamper-proofing cockpit equipment outweigh the benefits.

Likewise, the United Nations wants to track aircraft more frequently and in greater detail. Again, this sounds like a no-brainer. Yet planes are already thoroughly tracked. And a group studying the idea for the UN found that the additional requirements under consideration could in some cases create new risks, cause miscommunication and impose an "unrealistic operational burden." Not to mention the expense. All this to address a surpassingly rare phenomenon. 

In the age of the drone, why not eliminate human pilots altogether? Even overlooking the cost and complexity involved, the alarming rate at which military drones -- to say nothing of their civilian counterparts -- crash in much less demanding environments should give pause. The reality is that, despite high-profile catastrophes, pilots solve many more problems in-flight than they've ever caused.

Some new technology may, in fact, be helpful in preventing future disasters. Aerospace companies are working on gear that could wrest control from a pilot in times of distress. The U.S. military is working on robot co-pilots. These are promising endeavors, worthy of more study and investment. Yet they, too, risk unintended consequences, including malicious hacking, conflicting lines of authority and well-intentioned mistakes.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, a consensus emerged that cockpit doors should be reinforced and fitted with elaborate locks. This was an eminently sensible idea. Then, last year, a pilot named Andreas Lubitz boarded Germanwings Flight 9525. When his captain left the cockpit, Lubitz locked the door, took the controls and guided the plane into the French Alps, killing himself and 149 others. In the background, his panicked colleagues could be heard smashing against the reinforced door, again and again, in a futile attempt to stop him.

It took decades of research, regulation and scientific advances to make airplanes as safe as they are now. Things can always be improved. But it's important to accept that risk can never be completely eliminated from flight, and that more complexity often means more ways for things to go wrong. It may be that the safest thing to do in response to Malaysia Flight 370 is something that almost defies human intuition: nothing at all.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.