WASHINGTON - A simple computer upgrade that Malaysia Airlines decided not to purchase would have provided critical information to help find the plane that disappeared more than a week ago, a report said on Thursday.
The upgrade, which wholesales for about US$10 (S$12.70) per flight, would have provided investigators with the direction, speed and altitude of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 even after other communications from the plane went dark, according to a satellite industry official familiar with the equipment, Washington Post reported.
Data from a similar computer upgrade allowed investigators in the 2009 crash of an Air France jetliner to quickly narrow their search area to a radius of about 40 miles in the Atlantic Ocean, and in five days they found floating evidence of the crash, the Post said.
"We've got to hope for a break," said Dave Gallo, who directed the search by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that found the Air France plane. "Someone's got to find on the surface some bit of that plane floating."
A massive search involving 26 countries and coordinated by Malaysia entered its 13th day on Thursday and is still scouring waters in two main areas: A northern corridor stretching approximately from the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to northern Thailand, and a southern corridor from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean.
The new information indicates that had the upgrade for a system called Swift been installed, it would have continued to send flight data by satellite even after the plane's transponder and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) communications went dead.
Investigators say they think those two systems were shut down by a pilot or hijackers in the cockpit before the plane flew on for another seven hours.
The satellite industry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, likened the Swift system to a cellphone that sends data to a satellite. He described ACARS as akin to an app for a mobile phone.
Had the Swift system been upgraded to include the full package of applications, it could have sent information on engine performance, fuel consumption, speed, altitude and direction, regardless of whether the transponder and ACARS were working, he said.
"When ACARS is turned off, Swift continues on," he said. "If you configure Swift to track engine data, that data will be streamed off the plane. It continues to be powered up while the aircraft is powered up."
Many major airlines use the full package of Swift options. The detail it provides is mandated under international aviation guidelines for airlines that fly the busy North Atlantic corridor between the United States and Europe. There are no such requirements elsewhere in the world, the industry official said.
In addition to sending information to the airline, Swift also can be programmed to send data to the manufacturer - usually Boeing or Airbus - and the engine maker - usually Rolls Royce or Pratt & Whitney, Washington Post reported.
Some airlines have decided they do not want to pay the higher cost for an information stream that they deem unnecessary except under the most extreme circumstances, the report said.
Asked why an airline might choose not to buy an application that sells for a relatively modest cost, the official said, "Every pound on an aircraft is fuel consumed. As in all matters, it always comes down to cost."
Rather than stream that data, he said, some airlines choose to download it onto a USB stick once the plane lands.
Because Malaysia Airlines went with the cheaper option, he said, "there was not an awful lot that was captured."
Mr Zainul Zawawi, vice-president for North America operations at Malaysia Airlines, said he was not authorised to speak about the missing flight and referred questions to airline officials in Malaysia. The post could not reach those officials.