Was The Air Asia Crash Linked to Overly Crowded Skies?
Debris from the crashed Air Asia flight
NEW DELHI: Debris from Air Asia flight QZ8501, that disappeared on Sunday en route to Singapore from Surabaya, Indonesia, was located off the coast of Borneo on Tuesday. Indonesian authorities and AirAsia have both confirmed that the wreckage is Flight QZ8501.
Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes said in a statement: “I am absolutely devastated. This is a very difficult moment for all of us at AirAsia as we await further developments of the search and rescue operations but our first priority now is the wellbeing of the family members of those onboard QZ8501.”
The discovery of the debris from the plane came as new information revealed that the fate of the doomed jetliner may be tied to a crucial two-minute delay in letting its pilot climb to a higher altitude. The pilots had requested air traffic control to allow them to redirect the plane and climb to avoid a storm. Air traffic control could not immediately grant the request as six other planes were crowding the higher airspace. By the time the pilot of QZ8501 was given the green signal to change course two minutes later, it was too late as the plane had disappeared off the radar screens.
The crash of the Air Asia flight QZ8501 concludes a bad year for aviation. The plane had 162 people on board. The airline is Indonesia based but the offshoot is 49 per cent owned by parent company AirAsia Berhad, headquartered near the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The plane’s crash, along with the disappearance of MH370 and the shooting-down of MH17 in July over war-torn Ukraine, has sealed the fate of 2014 as one of the world years for aviation, and worst-still for Malaysian aviation.
With this crash, the commercial aircraft fatalities are at a staggering 986 this year, the highest annual death toll since 2005.
The crash of QZ8501 is the year’s 20th fatal commercial aircraft accident and, perhaps more alarmingly, the seventh major airline crash.
Although MH370, which disappeared March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, with 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board; MH17, which crashed over eastern Ukraine killing all 298 people on board; and now QZ8501 have dominated headlines -- these have not been the only airline accidents this year.
Here is a grim recap.
February 2014: a Nepal Airlines Twin Otter aircraft crashed into a mountainside near Sandhikhark, Nepal, on February 16, killing all 18 on-board.
March 2014: MH370 disappeared in March, and extensive search efforts since have yielded no sign of the plane. The flight’s disappearance is considered one of the biggest aviation mysteries, with evidence suggesting that the plane’s communication systems were “deliberately disabled,” leading to various theories including terrorist involvement or a potential hijack. With all passengers being cleared of suspicion, including two who were traveling on stolen passports, suspicion fell on the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, of MH370. When the plane first disappeared, the flying experience of the pilot and co-pilot were referred to as a measure of safety, with publications pointing to Shah’s 18,000 hours of flying experience and Hamid’s 2,700. Soon after, reports emerged that Hamid had invited two young passengers into the cockpit during an earlier flight in a severe breach of security regulations.
More significantly, the jetliner's data communications systems - the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARA) - were switched off, and investigators have pointed to the fact that someone with knowledge of the systems could have played a role, leading to doubt falling on the pilots themselves. Further, the last words spoken from the cockpit seem to indicate that nothing was wrong, with Hamid reportedly saying, “All right, good night" (later revealed to be goodnight Malaysian three seven zero) when Malaysian air traffic controllers informed them that control was being handed over to Vietnam. The plane never made contact with Vietnam, and investigators believe that the reassuring words were spoken at around the same time that the ACARA systems were turned off. So far, no evidence of the pilots’ involvement has been found.
With no concrete leads and search results yielding no evidence, the Malaysian Prime Minister Razak had formally concluded that the plane crashed into the South Indian Ocean, “beyond any reasonable doubt.” The breakthrough that led Razak to conclude that the missing airline crashed into the Indian Ocean came from British satellite firm Inmarsat, which studied the electronic “pings” or bursts of data that the aircraft had sent its satellites to establish the course of the plane, concluding that it had flown south. This last known position, “is a remote location, far from any landing sites,” said Razak, ascertaining, “It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”
A few days after the statement and following the relatives of the passengers and crew of the missing flight being informed, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) issued a statement saying that the search area is being shifted based on further analysis of data captured between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca before radar contact was lost. The data, provided by the international investigation team in Malaysia, suggested that the plane was travelling at a higher speed than previously thought, which would increase fuel use and cut the distance it could travel. "The new search area is approximately 319,000 square kilometres in area and about 1,850 kilometres west of Perth," AMSA's Josh Young told a press conference.
The inconsistent information sparked protests with family members issuing a statement in response, reading, “If the passengers did lose their lives, Malaysia Airlines, the Malaysian government and military are the real executioners who killed them.” In China, relatives of passengers on board the flight - 153 of whom were Chinese nationals, led protests outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing, accusing the Malaysian government of “cheating” them, and demanding that the Malaysian government issue them an explanation of what happened to the flight.
A pertinent question however remains: How can planes just disappear with no indication of what went wrong given the technological advancement of the 21st century? As airlines are advertising the provision of in-flight internet usage, do we not have the technology to ascertain what went wrong? The engines of the airplane are fitted with technology to send a signal about what went wrong, although not on the plane’s GPS location.
Aircraft are of course fitted with a flight data “black box” (actually, orange in colour), which, IF recovered, will be able to provide the necessary information. However, the black box, which is fitted with a beacon to transmit a signal for 30 days, “pinging” if the aircraft is lost at sea, could itself have been destroyed if the calamity that led to the disappearance/crash of the plane was powerful enough.
Now, considering that the black box ends up in the wreckage itself, it doesn’t seem like the best place to store information about what led to a crash, so why is it still the pervasive technology used? Why can’t this data be transmitted from the flight in an era where passengers can watch live television and have access to Wi-Fi mid-air? The simple answer is cost - it is expensive for flights to send data in real time via satellite, with some estimates indicating that it would cost about $300 million per year for a single airline flying a global network; a cost that many do not consider worth it given the decrease in major commercial airline disasters over the years. However, some data is better than none, and these cases will most certainly lead to a debate on black boxes, with an article in The Guardian stating, “The ongoing mystery of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is the fault of a bizarre quirk in our networked society. Even cars have broadband connectivity now, but the modern jet airliner – perhaps our most technologically evolved mode of transport – still exists in the age of radio.”
Further, QZ8501 and MH370 are not the only two planes to have gone missing. The crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009 possibly the closest point of comparison. Flight 447 disappeared over the Atlantic en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, and like the Malaysian Airlines and AirAsia flight, no distress signal was issued. It took search teams five days to locate some part of the plane, with the wreckage of the plane being found after nearly two years. It took investigators another year to figure out what had gone wrong: ice crystals had blocked the plane’s airspeed sensors. In 2007, an Adam Air flight carrying 107 people disappeared over Indonesian waters. It took a week for a navy ship to detect metal from the plane on the ocean floor.
In conclusion, we still do not know what happened to MH370, but the reason for that is perhaps more firmly rooted in the fact that airplanes are not fitted with the best mechanisms to transmit data in the Information Age coupled with the fact that the world is a very large place
July 2014: MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. The shooting-down escalated tensions between between Russia, which supports the pro-independence rebels in Ukraine’s east, and United States-led Western power that back the government in Kiev.
The tensions are linked to ambiguity regarding the circumstances that led to the plane’s crash, with Kiev releasing an audio of what it says are intercepted telephone conversations between rebels and Russian military intelligence officers during which the former admit to shooting down a plane. Leaders of the rebel Donetsk People's Republic denied involvement, saying instead that a Ukrainian air force jet had brought down the plane.
July 2014: TransAsia Airways ATR 72-500 crashed near Magong Airport in Taiwan on July 23, with 48 passengers and crew dying after the plane missed its first runway approach. Miraculously 10 people survived the crash.
July 2014: an Air Algerie MD-83 passenger aircraft dropped off the radar and crashed while flying over Mali, en route to Algiers from the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou. All 116 occupants were killed.
August 2014: an Iranian-built Sepahan Airlines plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran International Airport. 39 people died.
December 2014: QZ8501 as search and rescue teams spotted debris and dead bodies off the coast of Borneo, Air Asia said in a statement that it was inviting family members to Surabaya, "where a dedicated team of care providers will be assigned to each family to ensure that all of their needs are met.”
About 30 ships and 21 aircraft from Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and the United States have been involved in the search.
The plane, as mentioned, disappeared after pilots asked for permission to climb to a higher altitude. Indonesia’s state navigation operator said that the Airbus 320-200’s pilot, Capt. Iriyanto, had requested permission to turn left to avoid a storm. That request was granted and the plane turned left for seven miles. The Captain then sent a message at 6:12 a.m. saying, “Request to higher level,” according to AirNav Standards and Safety Director Wisnu Darjono, as quoted by the Jakarta Post.
“Intended to what level?” the controller responded. When the Captain said 38,000 feet, he was told to hold off because there were six other planes in that area. “But when we informed the pilot of the approval at 6:14 a.m., we received no reply,” Darjono said in the Jakarta Post.
When the permission was finally granted two minutes later, the plane had disappeared off radar screens.