Satellite technology enabling constant monitoring of aircraft over remote areas should be made mandatory, a US pilot association has said as international search teams keep struggling to locate the Flight MH370 wreckage after a month of effort.
Although technology is available allowing controllers to keep track of aircraft travelling over oceans and other remote areas via satellite-based voice and communications services, subscription to those services is voluntary and subject to a fee, meaning budget-tight airlines frequently decide not to use it.
"Technology that exists today can pinpoint the location of aircraft in near real time and, in this day and age, it is unacceptable that the location of the aircraft is unknown," said the US-based Air Line Pilots Association.
"Implementation of technology such as ADS-B and use of satellite surveillance of aircraft during flight operations must become the standard across the industry," it added in a statement received on Saturday.
ADS-B is a satellite navigation device capable of linking to the Global Positioning System or other space-based networks.
According to London-based satellite operator Inmarsat, it would have cost Malaysia Airlines some £10 per flight to provide its aircraft with an upgraded version of the same satellite communication system that enabled narrowing down the search area in the southern Indian Ocean. Had Flight MH370 been subscribed to the upgraded service, the controllers would have received its exact coordinates as well as some other basic flight data, apart from the regular pings that were eventually used to determine its path.
Despite some optimistic news coming over the weekend that two ships in search for the missing plane detected signals corresponding to that of the Flight Data Recorder beacons, fears are growing the aircraft could never be found.
Australian ship Ocean Shield, equipped with a US towed pinger locator reported listening to a black-box-like signal for two hours on Sunday some 1,680km northwest of Perth.
Earlier, a Chinese ship was said to have intercepted a signal on the 37.5 kHz frequency, a standard for black box locators, in another area. In both cases, experts have warned there may be many different sources of such a signal including whales.
The signal detection, considered the most promising lead so far, comes as the batteries of the black box beacons are nearing the end of its designed 30-day life-time.
Following the Air France disaster in the Atlantic in 2009, French authorities recommended battery life-time of the locating devices should be extended to 90 days. However, this move will only be implemented after 2018.
The Flight MH370 disappearance has intensified the debate which started after the loss of the French AF447. However, to enforce any changes would require time and firm accident investigation conclusions.
After the Air France crash, a United Nations agency began looking at three reforms of better aircraft tracking technology, but not all would be required by law.
Under one of these, a jetliner would automatically beam back regular updates on its location throughout the flight. Under the second proposal, the jet would automatically send out useful tracking data when it senses it is about to crash.
A third idea calls for the black box to be ejected from the aircraft just before impact, avoiding the risk of destruction.
One US government official told Reuters the sheer scope of the international search effort, the frustration of not finding any sign of wreckage, and the lingering questions about whether there was a technical issue with the plane that caused the course change, could push the issue to a tipping point.
"I think it's different this time," said the official, asking not to be named. "People have been calling for this for years, but maybe now there's enough momentum to make it happen."
But some in the aviation industry remain sceptical, citing inertia over changes in regulations in the past and the astonishingly rare disappearance, albeit with many casualties.