Tony Tyler For The Straits Times

IATA chief on lessons from MH370: We cannot let another aircraft simply disappear

Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 take part in a prayer service at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 take part in a prayer service at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on April 8, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

The tragedy of MH370 has saddened us all. Through the media, the world continues to follow the extraordinary international response. As human beings, we in the airline industry have kept all those on board, their families and friends in our thoughts through these difficult weeks.

The continuing search is being conducted on an unprecedented scale and the efforts of those involved are no less than heroic. We admire the courageous determination of our colleagues and hope for their safety and success.

Something terrible has happened on what should have been a routine flight. Much though we would like, we cannot wish the event away. From the moment tragedy struck, Malaysia Airlines has been working with the families to help them deal with the trauma of their loss. It is a challenging task, especially in a case with so much uncertainty.

The airline industry, its stakeholders and regulators are at the beginning of the journey to unravel this mystery, understand the cause and find ways to ensure that it is not repeated. That is the best way for all of us involved in aviation to honour the memory of those on board.

In "normal" circumstances, accident investigations take a year or more. In this case, given the difficult area in which the aircraft was lost, it will surely be a long journey before we can draw any certain conclusions.

In the meantime, speculation - of which there has been much - will not make flying any safer. The so-called "black box" will tell the story with the information on the flight data and the cockpit voice recorders. The priority is to recover these as soon as possible. In the meantime, it is important not to jump to any conclusions regarding the probable the cause.

There are, however, at least two areas of process - not cause - where there are clearly challenges that need to be overcome.

The first is how aircraft are tracked as they move around the globe. In a world where our every move seems to be tracked, there is disbelief both that an aircraft could simply disappear, and that the "black box" could be so difficult to find. Air France 447 brought similar issues to light a few years ago. While some progress has been made, it is clear that we must accelerate our efforts. We cannot let another aircraft simply disappear.

Even in our eagerness, however, we must also ensure that prudent decisions are made in line with global standards. This is not the time for hastily prepared sales pitches or regional solutions. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has well-established processes to move this forward. And I have no doubt that governments are also eager to find a solution.

The aviation industry must and will play a role in supporting ICAO in this effort. That is why IATA is convening an expert task force to examine all of the options available for tracking commercial aircraft. The group will weigh considerations of implementation, investment, time and complexity to achieve the desired coverage. Our goal is to report conclusions by December, a time frame that reflects the need to balance urgent action with the necessity for careful analysis.

The second area where action is needed is related to the discovery that stolen passports were used by two passengers. This is a matter of serious concern.

Intelligence is critical to keeping flying secure. Security is the responsibility of governments. About 60 governments require airlines to provide advance passenger data. Airlines understand that thorough passenger pre-screening by governments is a necessary security measure. In fact, airlines go to great lengths and expense to provide these governments with reliable data, including passport information.

But I have often wondered if governments are using it. The disappearance of MH370 gives us cause to ask these governments to review their processes for vetting and using the data available to them - for example the Interpol stolen and lost passport database. In fact we ask governments to take action in four key areas:

- When governments ask for passenger data, the request should conform to the standards agreed to through ICAO. The non-standard requirements of some governments should be eliminated. They complicate the system with no benefit to security.

- We must also modernise the collection of data. As airlines are transmitting data electronically, it is time to do away with the many paper forms that airlines, passengers and shippers are required to submit.

- And if we are all on the same page with the elements and format of the data, governments should create a single harmonised window through which the data can be sent.

- And finally, governments should explore how passenger data can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of border controls. We should be able to measure the improvement it achieves.

Accidents are rare. Each day nearly 100,000 flights take people safely to their respective destinations. That is because the aviation industry and its regulators are never complacent about either safety or security. Even before we know what happened to MH370, we have already begun important work to make the industry even safer.

The writer is Director General and CEO of International Air Transport Association.