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Catastrophic mechanical failure, terrorism, a hijacking, pilot suicide: nothing, so far, has been ruled out as a possible explanation for the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Ships, planes and helicopters are searching in a wide area for some trace of the jetliner that dropped off radar over the Gulf of Thailand early last Saturday. Without wreckage to study or a black box recorder to analyze, investigators have no clues in the effort to find out what happened to the plane and its 239 passengers. Experts caution that definitive answers may be a long time coming. Guest host Susan Page and panelists discuss some of the many troubling questions about Malaysia Airlines flight 370.
- Tom Fuentes former assistant director, FBI.
- Jon Ostrower reporter, The Wall Street Journal.
- Alan Levin reporter, Bloomberg News.
- Peter Goelz senior vice president, O'Neill and Associates and former managing director, National Transportation Safety Board.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is on vacation. There is a stunning lack of information to explain what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing last Saturday. Many countries are taking part in the search for possible wreckage, but so thus far they have come up short.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio to talk about the search and the challenges ahead for investigators: Tom Fuentes, former assistant director of the FBI, Alan Levin of Bloomberg News, and Jon Ostrower of The Wall Street Journal. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. TOM FUENTESThank you.
MR. JON OSTROWERThanks.
MR. ALAN LEVINThank you.
PAGEAnd joining us by phone from his office in Washington, D.C., Peter Goelz of O'Neill and Associates. He's a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. Thank you for joining us.
MR. PETER GOELZThank you for having me. Good morning, gentlemen.
PAGEMy -- you can join our conversation. We want our listeners to call in with your questions or comments, our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Peter, let's start with you. Tell us, what do we know at this point several days after this plane went off the radar?
GOELZWell, we know surprisingly little, unfortunately. The aircraft was at the outer reaches of the Malaysian radar station's capability. All we know is that it disappeared off the screen. I think we're starting to get some information now that other countries may have had radar covering that area of the ocean, and they may have picked up something.
GOELZIt's not surprising they would not have shared it right away with the Malaysians, but I understand our government has made requests. And we're starting to see some Vietnamese radar information and perhaps the Chinese had some warships in the area that had their radar turned on. The key is to try and get some kind of picture from radar of what the plane was doing the last moments of flight.
PAGEWell, Tom, why wouldn't the Chinese and Vietnamese want to share this information immediately? Why is it taking a couple days to start to receive it?
FUENTESI don't know. That sounds unusual to me that they wouldn't share it right away. It could be that people detected something on their radar that just didn't seem, you know, that it should be there. I'll put it that way. You know, if those pilots had gone beyond the Malaysian air traffic control and were in an area that other -- that wasn't the normal flight path, let's say, then, you know, possibly the other governments might not realize in all the signals that they have on their radar that it might have been that plane.
PAGEJon, I think it's hard for people to understand why, in an age when all of us feel like we're under surveillance all the time, how a jet with more than 200 people aboard could simply disappear. Why has that happened?
OSTROWERWell, there are a lot of different factors here that are unfolding, mainly that you've got an area in the Gulf of Thailand that has -- is covered by primary radar where you've got both sides of the gulf are monitoring traffic coming back and forth. The way that that's monitored is through what's called a transponder.
OSTROWERAnd those transponders operate all over the world in any kind of aviation environment which provide position, speed, and a call sign to controllers. That filters out a lot of the kind of miscellaneous noise in a given radar area, whether it's a flock of birds, whether it's a hot air balloon at low altitude. So those aircraft are tracked specifically during this en route portion of the flight.
OSTROWERSo in a modern day when we've got, you know, a fleet of 27,000 airplanes flying, the pilots are frequently communicating based on reporting their positions by way of essentially almost like a rudimentary email, text message system to dispatch controllers and so on. So there are ways to keep an eye on aircraft. But if -- of course, if those systems get turned off for whatever reason, certainly you can lose something over the Gulf of Thailand.
PAGEDo we have any indication that the system was turned off?
OSTROWERThere is no indication of that right now.
PAGESo, Alan, bring us up to date on what's happening with the search itself. Where are they looking?
LEVINJust about everywhere. The -- we understand they've expanded the search to the western coast of Malaysia which is the opposite side of the peninsula where they think the plane disappeared. They're definitely looking all around this Gulf of Thailand, which is sort of north and east of Malaysia, and further east into the sea out there. But at this point -- we even have a report this morning that the Vietnamese have expanded the search to land, just in case the plane somehow made it over land and crashed there. But it's a very vague situation.
LEVINAnd just to follow on what Jon said, we do a very good job of tracking aircraft over land where we have radars. In the U.S., you know, typically a plane is under -- is being surveyed -- surveilled by several radars at the same time. But once you get over water, it's a much more difficult problem. And they don't have such exact position of a plane. And so in this case, as Peter mentioned, where this is at the edge of the Malaysian radar coverage, they would have a much less clear idea of where this plane was. And that appears to have contributed to this.
PAGEPeter, let me ask...
GOELZYeah, let me...
PAGEYes, Peter, go ahead.
GOELZLet me point something out. When TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island -- it was just nine miles off the coast -- we had eight different radar tracks monitoring the aircraft. It still took us a number of days to find the wreckage and probably a week before we found the black boxes and were able to recover them. So the idea that they are expanding the search is not good news. What it means is they have no idea where this plane is. And the idea -- you know, finding a needle in a haystack is easy -- an easy assignment compared to this.
PAGELet me ask a question that might be naïve or stupid. And that is, is it conceivable that there are survivors, either survivors in a life raft in the ocean or they landed on -- somehow landed in a jungle? And is that possible? Or is that -- is it really a foregone conclusion now, that that's not the case?
OSTROWERWell, I don't think any of us want to rule anything out at this point. It's very hard to handicap any of the possibilities. And as remote as it is, there is a possibility that this plane landed somewhere. I don't think that's very likely at all, but it's certainly something that has to be considered.
PAGESo, Tom, one of the things that we've learned is that two of the passengers were traveling with stolen passports. What do you make of that? Is that unusual? Do we only know this because the plane went down? Does this happen all the time? Or do you think it's an unusual thing?
FUENTESNo. Stolen passports or counterfeit passports are used all the time. We don't know exactly how many because they don't get detected. There's only a couple of countries, the United States, the United Kingdom, one or two others, that routinely check passports on outbound flights against Interpol's lost and stolen travel document file.
FUENTESNow, that file was created by Interpol right after 9/11 in 2002. And it has 40 million records of stolen passports. Or people have reported their passports lost, and they've been entered. Now I should add that's a lot of numbers. Part of that is because, over time, in many parts of the world, warehouses that have blank passports, you know, that have been made for the government but not issued yet, get burglarized.
FUENTESSo there are some countries that have lost tens of thousands of passports at one time that were blank, only need to have the information put in at a later time and the photograph added and then re-laminated. So it's not uncommon to have these passports out there. One billion flights a year take off worldwide where there's no check for whether or not the documents were lost or stolen.
PAGEDo we -- go ahead, Alan.
LEVINWell, I would just add that the reports out today suggest that authorities are leaning against those two individuals being involved in terrorism.
PAGESo -- and why do we think they were not involved in terrorism?
LEVINThe authorities were able to interview the person who sold them the tickets, the mother of one of the individuals. And apparently, at least in the case of this younger man, he was going to move to Germany where his mother lived. And I believe they've done background checks, and they just don't see a link to al-Qaida or any terrorist group.
PAGESo, Jon, are there other signs that this might be a case of terrorism?
OSTROWERNot really. I mean, right now what you've got is a stunning lack of information that we've kind of come back to, you know, here, four, five days later. And, as far as the suspected terrorism theory -- 'cause that's what it really is at this point -- goes, it's really something that authorities around the world are looking into. But at this point, we really don't have any clear sign that there was foul play here.
PAGESo if not terrorism, it might be mechanical failure. Peter, any signs of that?
GOELZWell, we have signs of nothing. All we know is is that a triple-seven disappeared from the radar screens. And past history tells us it could be any number of issues from a catastrophic failure of the aircraft, like TWA 800, where the center wing tank ignited, to Egypt Air where there was a pilot -- a co-pilot who flew the plane into the ocean on purpose. We simply don't know, and we won't know until we start to find some wreckage and start to find -- have a hint of where the flight data and voice recorders are.
OSTROWERAnd -- well, and I'm glad you brought Egypt Air up, Peter, because I believe that case, too, it took quite a long time to locate the wreckage. Wasn't that the case?
GOELZAbsolutely. I mean, that one crashed in the Atlantic north of Nantucket, and it was -- we had good radar data on it. And it -- and solid radar from a number of different radar stations, but it still took us quite a while to find and recover the black boxes.
PAGEPeter Goelz, he's the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, and we're also joined this hour by Alan Levin from Bloomberg News, Jon Ostrower from The Wall Street Journal, and Tom Fuentes, former assistant director of the FBI. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about previous examples of airplanes disappearing and what the conclusions were later drawn about what happened to them. And we'll go to the phones and take some of your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWe have an emailer, Chuck, who's writing us from Cincinnati, and he asks, "Has there ever been an occurrence of any aircraft loss where the wreckage or flight recorder was never found?" What do you think? Do we have an example, Jon?
OSTROWERWe dug really deep into this question over the last 24 hours, and we found that in 1962 a military air transport flight from Guam to the Philippines disappeared with 107 people onboard. And the wreckage there has never been recovered and remains today one of the most prominent unsolved mysteries in aviation.
PAGEAnd do -- I wonder if others on the panel have examples that might seem similar.
LEVINWell, I was just going to add that in the sort of more modern era of the last -- since 1970, I'm not aware of any where they weren't able to locate the plane or have enough information based on radio transmissions to know what happened. So, for example, there was a South African plane that had a cargo fire that went down in the Indian Ocean in the '70s or '80s. They had a terrible time locating that, but they knew it had a cargo fire, for example. I do believe they finally located that.
LEVINYou know, we have Air France plane that went down in 2009 in the -- more than two miles beneath the Atlantic Ocean came to rest. They ultimately were able to find that, on and on. You know, given the underwater technology that we have, the modern aircraft technology, they've -- in the more modern era -- we do have these older cases for sure, but in the more modern era they've been able to find every one.
FUENTESYeah, the last one I can recall is 1972, the Uruguayan airliner that was en route over the Andes to Santiago, Chili, and it crashed. And the search -- the pilots had drifted hundreds of miles off course in that flight. The search area didn't include where the plane actually went down. And it was down for months.
FUENTESAnd finally two passengers that survived walked through the mountains and finally were located by an individual. And they brought the rescuers there. So we don't know at what point that plane ever would've been found. But it wasn't found in the first three or four months after disappearing.
PAGEDoes the search for this go on forever? I mean, at what point -- it's very early, of course, and the search is going to continue for some time. But will the search continue until we have an answer?
OSTROWERThe aviation community in its own right tends to want to find answers and understand what actually unfolded here. Certainly for the families, certainly for the airline, certainly for all involved, there are answers that are sought over the long term. And what we've seen is certainly the case of Air France. The 23 months after the airplane crashed, the black boxes were finally located after, I mean, incredibly extensive search at the bottom of the ocean. And that was one of the more challenging recovery operations.
OSTROWERSo this can stretch on as long as there is, you know, both the will of the aviation industry, the will of the airline, and the will of the governments involved, and obviously, no doubt, the families pushing to really find answers. So this will go on as long as there is all those factors playing out.
GOELZYeah, this is Peter. Commercial aviation abhors a vacuum. They cannot tolerate a cloud sitting over one of their products. And the triple-seven is such a mainstay of the Boeing Corporation's fleet that they will be unrelenting in trying to find the wreckage and trying to determine the probable cause. Just as Air France and the government of France was for the airbus accident over the South Atlantic, they cannot allow questions to remain.
PAGEAnd who pays for the search?
GOELZWell, the -- in some cases, the government of France. In the case of TWA 800, the U.S. government paid for it. In some cases, the airline and their insurers pay for it, portions of it.
PAGEAnd in this case -- and in this case, who would pay for it?
OSTROWERWell, the one thing complicating this, the early days of the search, is that because we haven't located the wreckage or potential wreckage, we don't -- it might even be speculative to say there is wreckage at this point -- that because we don't know where it is, it's not entirely clear whose jurisdiction would actually cover and run the investigation. If it's in international waters, historically, it's tended to be the flag on the airplane, in this case, would be Malaysia. But if it's in Vietnamese waters or elsewhere, there could be a different fact going on here.
FUENTESAnd that will also depend on who -- you know, if they determine where the fault lies. Is it mechanical? Then it's Boeing's fault. Is it lack of security? Then it might be the Malaysian government's fault. You know, lack of background checks, let's say, or medical checks on the crew or the pilots in this case, which case might be the airline's fault. So that's another factor that'll affect us in the long run. I think, in the short run, every country just sends their ships and planes out there and hopes they find it. And that's not -- paying for it isn't the number one concern yet.
PAGEYeah, so obviously that's the case we care most about, the loss of human life and the potential ahead to make sure that air travel is safe. But does the fact that there -- it wasn't clear who should be in charge, has that affected the search so far? Has it made it less -- would it make it less efficient in the early hours?
LEVINIt's hard to know. One does have the sense that there is a bit of inefficiency. And we have a number of nations out there. Some of those waters are disputed, and so there's delicate political issues that may have slowed down the boundaries of the search and all that. But in some ways this is as murky as the investigation. It's very hard to tell how efficient the searches are being done.
PAGELet's get some questions and comments from our listeners. We'll go first to Charlotte, N.C. and talk to Adam. Adam, hi. You're on the air.
ADAMHi, Susan. And to all the guests, the question I have is, you know, people can put GPS locating devices on, you know, iPads and phones and, you know, vehicles. But is there no such technology that exists that someone can put this on an airplane of all things? I don't know if there's technical limitations to that, you know, if a plane in fact is submerged underwater if it won't work or track.
ADAMBut it's just baffling that in this day and age, there's no technology that exists that a plane can be located. You know, it seems like relying on black boxes is pretty archaic in this day and age because, you know, by the time you locate black boxes, maybe there's no survivors. And hopefully if you can track a plane in this type of instance, you can still find survivors you know.
PAGEYeah, Adam, thanks very much for your call. Alan.
LEVINWell, that's a very good question. The fact is there are -- there is growing use of technology like that, but it is not in place on most planes. It came up in the Air France investigation because it took them so long to locate the aircraft. And the French investigators recommended that there be devices on planes that automatically send telemetry to locate a plane just in the event of a loss over water like this. But the -- it's worth noting that there...
PAGEAnd why hasn't that happened?
LEVINWell, the reason it hasn't happened is that the -- under most circumstances, they know precisely where aircraft are at all times. And there hasn't -- it's extraordinarily rare after an accident that they haven't been able to locate one, even ones over water. And so the -- it's been hard to justify the extraordinary cost it would take to add these things on the thousands of jets out there, given that this is a once a decade or even more rare event.
GOELZYeah, the technologies -- and there are two that are most prominently discussed. One is streaming technology that would use satellites. And using satellite for streaming technology is very expensive. There have been some proposals that -- and equipment that would burst the data out once the plane got into a difficult situation. If certain G levels, you know, were exceeded, it would start to transmit.
GOELZThe second is a deployable data recorder which is used on some military jets. If the plane gets into an unusual latitude or if the plane hits the water, the recorders are designed to deploy and then float on the surface of the water making it easier to recover. But, as Alan said, these are expensive fixes. And airlines -- air carriers and manufacturers don't like to go forward with it until they're ordered to do it. And they only do it once.
FUENTESI would say that the technology is moving in that direction. The -- you know, as they replace radar, the technology they're moving toward is a device that sends out a position of the aircraft once a second or more. And they're actually building a satellite network over the North Atlantic now which will monitor that. And I think, you know, in the next decade or two, we're going to have a worldwide satellite network that monitors planes instead of radar. So we're definitely moving in that direction.
OSTROWERAnd the one feature that's actually available today on aircraft is a system called ACARS. And ACARS is like health monitoring to the extreme. It will monitor different parts of the airplane. And as various things go awry, they'll actually report back to a main control center that this had been a problem and can position maintenance crews in advance of an aircraft's arrival. And this is actually extraordinarily helpful to investigators.
OSTROWERBack in 2009 in the Air France case when 14 messages were sent about the status of the aircraft showing that the autopilot had been disengaged, there was a failure in another system and essentially gave early clues to investigators. What's really important to know is in this case no such messages have been received or sent by the aircraft. And the airline actually said that overnight.
PAGEAnd so what does that tell you? If this system that's supposed to work didn't work, what does it say, Tom, about what probably happened or what may have happened?
FUENTESWell, it says either the personnel in charge of that aircraft either didn't want to send a message and shut systems off or couldn't because of a catastrophe. And...
PAGELike an explosion that would destroy it.
FUENTESAnd then we wouldn't know the cause of the catastrophe until we get the aircraft and start examining the equipment and can look at the data recorders for what was going on. What were the -- what was the flight deck talking about to each other? What was occurring at the time that plane was descending out of the sky? And that's another factor for -- you know, similar to the Egypt Air.
FUENTESWhen they got the cockpit reporters -- recorders, I mean, you know, they were able to determine that the relief pilot had deliberately put the plane down, you know, headed toward the ocean. The captain who had left the flight deck to go to the washroom, when it starts going straight down, he goes back in. And they're wrestling for the controls. But it was too late, and they can hear the conversation. They can hear them shouting at each other, and they know that the plane was, you know, in a nose dive that couldn't be recovered.
PAGEDoes the fact that we've had this tragedy now, will that fuel the effort to put even these expensive technologies on planes? Because think about the -- you think about the costs, but you think about the cost in human life here and the cost of the search. I mean, there are offsetting costs as well. Is it likely to make it -- to make us move toward this more rapidly than we would have otherwise?
OSTROWERAbsolutely. And certainly in the past, we've seen a system called ground proximity warning systems that have largely eliminated what's known as controlled flight into terrain, essentially accidents where an airplane either loses -- doesn't know -- the crews don't know where the aircraft is and they impact the ground or whether it's a mountain or an ocean without being aware of that. So those types of technologies have come to the forefront and really kind of enhanced aviation safety.
PAGEWe have an email from Rod in Michigan who writes, "There was a fascinating report on today's Morning Edition about tracking snowy owls with a 40 gram GPS unit with a five-year life." He wonders, "Why didn't the airlines use this technology?" I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jon.
OSTROWERThe thing about a snowy owl is that it doesn't fly at 35,000' at 85 percent of the speed of sound and doesn't need to survive in a, you know, temperature range from negative 40 all the way to 120. So certainly the technologies that are acquired for much smaller GPS devices and much more specific uses require a very different technology profile and certification regime to actually get something out to the public.
PAGEYeah, fair point. Let's go to another caller. We'll go to Andrew who's calling us from Vandalia, Ill. Hi, Andrew.
ANDREWYeah, hey, thanks for taking my call. I don't mean to go too Hollywood movie on you, but is there any possibility that there was, you know, a big plan or conspiracy onboard? And maybe they have flown and diverted to some remote airstrip somewhere and are hiding out or -- for any type of, you know, ulterior motives that might be out there? Is that even possible with a modern airliner to do something like that, something as big as the triple-seven?
PAGEAndrew, that's an interesting question. We have a sort of related question from Kevin who wrote us from Albuquerque: "If hijackers stole the plane, how far could they have flown it? Is it feasible that this plane could've been flown to a remote secret location and is waiting there?"
GOELZWell, sure. It's feasible, but it's highly, highly unlikely. Even if they turned off the aircraft's transponder, the radars would've still picked up its image without its identification. So that this aircraft apparently simply disappeared off the screen at 35,000'. So it makes that scenario as unlikely as it is to begin with, not impossible, but unlikely, more remote.
LEVINI would also add that there aren't that many runways long enough to land a triple-seven. And it's hard to hide a triple-seven once it's on the ground. They're one of the biggest planes in the world, so it does seem unlikely.
FUENTESYeah, and I've been asking experts over the weekend of whether it was possible for a pilot to land that aircraft in one piece on the ocean and sink it so that you would not have floating debris. And every person I talked to said no. The plane would be too fragile to land on an ocean, that would have to break into some form of pieces and debris would be out there to find. So, you know, that was something that occurred to me that maybe the pilot wanted to take that aircraft into the ocean and not have it be located.
PAGEYou mean a pilot suicide like with Egypt Air?
FUENTESWell, or a hijacker telling -- making the pilot or a hijacker taking over the aircraft, you know, saying land this and sink it so that it remains a mystery, you know, to find the aircraft and to find the cause of it And, again, as mentioned earlier, nobody wants a vacuum of information. Everybody wants to know, was it mechanical, was it human, was it, you know, terrorism? What was the cause of this? Because at any given time we have thousands of aircraft in the air all over the world. Is another aircraft out there vulnerable to the same thing?
PAGEWe all remember the Miracle on the Hudson where a plane got in trouble and landed -- did a water landing, not in a big ocean, in a smooth river. But is that possible? If there was mechanical trouble, is it possible the pilot was able to do a water landing?
LEVINThe investigation into the Miracle on the Hudson was quite interesting as far as water landings. It turns out it's quite tricky. It's very difficult to discern the horizon. You know, when you land on a runway you've got lights that sort of tell you exactly where the ground is. And, actually, Sully misjudged and landed way too hard.
LEVINHe pulled the plane up 100 or 200' too high to go into his landing flare and then came down really hard. So -- and then you've got the issue of chop on the water and whatnot. He was landing on a super smooth Hudson River. I do think it's pretty unlikely that you could land this thing in one piece on the water.
PAGEBoy, we sure have more questions and answers when it comes to this case. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones. We'll take some of your calls and questions. Our toll-free number 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an email at email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're joined this hour talking about the Malaysia Airlines disappearance by: Tom Fuentes, former assistant director of the FBI, Jon Ostrower, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, Alan Levin, a reporter with Bloomberg News, and Peter Goelz. He's the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. Right before the break, we were talking about whether it was possible there had been a water landing in the ocean. Peter, what did you think about that?
GOELZIt's highly unlikely. As Alan mentioned, you have the issue of no horizon. This crew was landing -- if they were attempting to do such a thing -- in the dead of night. And it would have been extraordinarily difficult to put a plane down. Much of our perception of how these events take place get driven by Hollywood. And I'm afraid that's one that's not going to fly.
PAGEAnd, Jon, what did you think?
OSTROWERWell, as far as that goes, I mean, certainly we've seen that the 777, as an airplane, can withstand an extraordinary force. We saw it last summer when the Asiana Airlines crashed in San Francisco, when the aircraft struck the seawall. The aircraft was largely intact. And there was certainly debris across the runway there, but for the most part the airplane really stayed together in one piece.
PAGETom, do we think that Malaysia Airlines followed the appropriate security procedures before this plane took off?
FUENTESWell, at this point airlines around the world do not have access to Interpol's Lost and Stolen Travel Document file. The governments do. And the members of Interpol can access that file. Interpol has initiated a trial project right now called I-Checkit, where they're allowing Cutter Air and Arabian Air direct access into that database in Lyon, France.
FUENTESBut they're the only two airlines in the world right now that are allowed to do it. So the request would have to be the airline would provide the flight passenger information to the government of Malaysia. And the government would have to make that inquiry for each and every flight.
PAGEAnd that didn't happen here.
FUENTESIt did not happen.
PAGEAnd Malaysia Airline, what are the implications, Jon, for it from this disappearance?
OSTROWERMalaysia Airlines was actually struggling, going into this crash, financially. On Monday morning, this certainly added injury to insult to this at that point when the stock actually opened up and dropped 16 percent. So it has weighed on their financial performance in the near term. Over the long term, they are moving toward upgrading their fleet and trying to turn that loss around. But certainly it complicates things that much more, as far as the international perception of the airline, and what kind of unfolds from here.
PAGEAnd, of course, at this point, we're most concerned with trying to find if there were any survivors, trying to figure out what happened. But, Alan, over the longer term, what could this mean for Boeing?
LEVINThat's hard to know for sure. But if you look back 20, 30, 40 years, Boeing has endured a number of catastrophic accidents. In the '90s, for example, two accidents, the TWA 800 and the 737 accident in Pittsburgh, both implicated the design of the aircraft. And yet Boeing has bounced back and been quite successful. So it's hard to know, but it's also fair to say that it's unlikely to cause a huge blemish on the company over the long run.
OSTROWERAnd I think, in a lot of respects, the global aviation fleet, it doubles about every 20 years. Air travel is growing at an extraordinary rate right now. And the number of aircraft that are entering the market is growing. What the aviation industry has done over that time, as this doubling has taken place, is that it's actually gotten safer.
OSTROWERYou wouldn't expect that you'd have just twice as many accidents for twice as many people flying. So the trends are actually going in opposite directions there. So a lot of that is, I think, fueling the intense interest in this story mainly because these things happen so infrequently and there's such a thirst for answers immediately.
PAGEYeah, it is so rare to have a plane go down, and especially with this kind of disappearance. Let's talk to Pete. He's calling us from Miami, Fla. Hi, Pete.
PETEYes, good morning. You were discussing lost aircraft. There was an aircraft, another one, back in the mid-'70s, Varig, 707, that had departed Narita en route for Los Angeles, had made its position report somewhere between 145 and 150 East and was never found, a crew of six. It was a cargo aircraft. I read the report because we had it in the office. I was working with Varig.
PETEAnd I believe, about two weeks later, they found a piece of wreckage that they thought was from the cargo on the aircraft, but they could not confirm that. And the search area included the entire North Pacific all the way to the West coast of the United States, a massive area. And to this day, that aircraft has never been found.
PAGEAnd so you were working for the airline then?
PETENot at that time of that accident, but I did work for it, and I did read the report. We had all of the plotting charts and everything. And the entire -- I was in Los Angeles at the dispatch center that handled that flight out of Narita.
PAGEAnd so, Pete, give us some sense of what it -- even though you were reading the reports, I realize you weren't there at the time of this. What is it like to be at the airline when something like this happens?
PETEWell, it is not pleasant at all. I can guarantee you. Obviously, there's a lot of questions of what could have happened. Just as there are a lot of questions at this time with Malaysia, the 777. Now, I was involved in the Air Florida crash in Washington. I was personally involved. So that one was definitely not a pleasant situation. But you're scratching your head, and everything is just hypothesis until you actually find wreckage, you find, as Mr. Goelz knows, you find the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, and then be able to piece together what happened.
PETEAnd, of course, the Varig's situation, they were already out of radar contact. So that aircraft could have gone anywhere after that last position report, and no wreckage. When I heard about the Malaysia, I initially thought a bomb, but as the days progress and there's no wreckage, that's one the questions I would have for the panel, is, if the aircraft had exploded in flight, there's got to be something floating out there.
PETEIf it was over the ocean.
PAGERight. Well, Pete, thanks so much for your call. Go ahead, Peter.
GOELZYeah, Pete underscores the absolute essential nature of trying to find where this plane went down. By expanding the search area, it really is a sign that we're in for a long haul. The best thing they can do is really pour over the radar. A 777 could glide 80 to 100 miles without engine if it lost all its power. So they really need to narrow the search down. And then I think, if they can do that, they'll start to find wreckage.
PAGEAnd, Peter -- I'm sorry, Alan. Go ahead.
LEVINOh, the caller also raises another very interesting point, which is that, indeed, if a plane breaks up at altitude from a bomb or other cause, it creates a huge area of debris because the lighter material sails through the air. It depends on the winds and everything, you know. The heavier pieces, like the engines, kind of fall straight down. And it also breaks off a lot of pieces that are light enough to float. And so this whole case is -- what little evidence we have is puzzling and very contradictory because if you did have a break up, you would expect to see a very obvious debris field somewhere.
PAGEAnd is there any scenario that kind of fits all the evidence we have so far?
GOELZNo. There simply isn't. And a lot of -- well, the phase that we're in right now in this is we're looking for the needle in a haystack that has all the flight data recorder on it, what went on onboard the aircraft. But we haven't even found the haystack yet.
PAGEYou know, no one has claimed, no group has credibly claimed responsibility for this incident so far. Would that be unusual, Tom, to have a couple days go by if there was a group that is responsible for this without taking credit?
FUENTESWell, the fact that no claim has been made is part of the reason authorities are in belief that maybe it was not terrorism. Again, they don't rule anything out, and they can't at this point. But that's one of the indicators that someone theoretically would have taken credit and hasn't. But not every case has a terrorist act been claimed by someone. They've done it and did not come back to claim it later. The one group, the Chinese Martyr Brigade, is a group that -- no one's ever heard of them.
FUENTESSo the belief was that that's a hoax. The second thing the intelligence community is looking at is their worldwide chatter because often the terrorists will brag about this to each other, that they were able to pull this off or they got assistance from another group, and they haven't picked up any increase in that type of communication around the world. So the terrorists seem to be as baffled as we are.
OSTROWERAnd certainly the most notable case of groups not taking credit is 9/11. We didn't know immediately that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were involved until significantly after when a video was released that showed bin Laden and his group actually discussing their reaction on that day.
PAGEBut of course we immediately knew it was an act of terrorism, in that case.
FUENTESRight. But part of the reason why he didn't was because there were other plans for other flights to be launched. And then eventually he called off having other flights. And then, of course, aviation basically shut down in the U.S. for that period of time. So that's part of the reason, was that they didn't want the authorities to really tighten up everything, which probably -- or hopefully -- is going to happen after this.
FUENTESMore countries are going to access databases that give them more information, not just passports, but if a person's wanted or police records and that type of thing. That is done. The United States makes 240 million inquiries a year into that Interpol database. But 1 billion tickets are issued internationally each year where there's no check done.
PAGELet's talk to Bruce. He's calling us from Quantico, Va. Hi, Bruce.
BRUCEGood morning. A quick remark and then a quick question. First of all, I've done some graduate research in stream data. And when you talk about -- I think the new flight data recorders are capturing as many as 200 parameters. And if you're talking about putting 3,000 to 5,000 in the aircraft in the air at any one given day, the amount of data that it needs to be streamed off of these aircraft and collected continuously -- we have the technology. We do not have the hardware to support the technology at this time.
BRUCEBut my question is this -- it hearkens back to one of the earlier callers, in that Egypt Air 990, Swiss Air 11, Flight 800, TWA, all these aircraft went off the coast in a good radar zone. There are these black zones, if you will, where radar coverage is minimal. The only way you lose a transport category aircraft is if goes catastrophic so fast that the crew cannot get a mayday call off or the systems are deliberately turned off, the nav radio, the com radio, the beacon.
BRUCEAnd the fact that this aircraft was lost in such a vague radar zone, and then there's no debris field, even with proper search parameters, makes me highly suspicious. I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories, but if there was some freight or some human freight on this aircraft that was highly valuable, would it be possible to drop this thing down below the radar and hide it?
PAGEAll right, Bruce. Let's ask our panel of experts. Would that be possible? Peter, what do you think?
GOELZWell, I suppose you could drop it down, yeah. If you dropped down below probably 15,000 or 17,000 feet, you would probably be off the radar. But, again, there's been no indication that there were any high-value people, from an intelligence standpoint, on the plane. And there's been no discussion of what kind or whether it was carrying significant cargo. But at this point, you can't eliminate anything.
PAGEI'm Susan Page. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now, we do know there were five passengers who failed to board, who got their boarding passes, but didn't board. Their luggage was reportedly taken off the plane. Do we think that's significant? And if so, what could it mean, Jon?
OSTROWERWell, that happens all the time in the airline world. There'll be no-shows. Airlines literally have a system by which they plan for the number of people that are not going to show up for a flight. So these are worked into the normal day-to-day operations. But it's not unusual by any stretch, but certainly these five people are going to get some extra scrutiny.
LEVINAnd we have reports overnight that some of those early indications were erroneous, that there were no issues with the passengers not showing up.
FUENTESYeah, and even if there were, you know, every disaster results in some kind of a change, either mechanical changes to the aircraft or security procedures. As a result of Pan Am 103, where luggage was put on the plane on the first leg that had the explosive device, and then on a connection the passenger that put it there -- the passengers got off, and then the plane later took off and exploded over Scotland. That changed it now so that if luggage is checked and the passenger doesn't get on that aircraft, they take that luggage off. It doesn't just continue on.
PAGEHere's an email from Donna. She asks about KAL007. "My cousin and her toddler were on that plane," she writes. "It was shot down over Thailand. Was that plane or anyone ever found?"
GOELZYes. Through the very persistent work of the family group that was attached to KAL007, the Russians finally turned over personal affects. The data recorder and voice recorder were recovered. And that mystery was revealed, and the Russians took responsibility for a real breach in their own procedures. They understood that this was a tragedy, and it was on their shoulders.
PAGEWe're almost out of time. I just want to go around the panel and ask, do you believe that the day will come when we can do a "Diane Rehm Show" about this tragedy and all these questions that we have will be answered, we'll know what happened to the plane, we'll know what happened to the passengers? Tom, will that day come?
FUENTESI think so.
PAGEJon, what you do you think?
OSTROWERAviation history has shown us that in the vast majority of accidents, we get the kind of the answers that allow aviation safety and aviation security to improve.
PAGEThe vast majority, but every one, Alan?
LEVINWell, it's very likely we'll have the answers. You know, we can't say with absolute certainty. And the other thing to note is this plane was extraordinarily modern, had not just a couple hundred parameters, probably more than a thousand parameter it's recording. So if they get those recorders, they'll have a very good idea what happened.
PAGEAnd, Peter, let's give you the last word on that question.
GOELZYeah, I agree that we're going to find out what happened to this tragedy. But I also believe that we're going to move forward on the real-time streaming of at least some of the data off the planes so that we're not in a complete black hole during the opening days of these kinds of tragedies when it happens again.
PAGEPeter Goelz, Alan Levin, Jon Ostrower, Tom Fuentes, thanks so much for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Denise Couture, Susan Casey Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn, Danielle Knight, and Alison Brody. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts and podcasts. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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