In theory, it seems it should be nearly impossible to lose track of a commercial airplane in flight: with sophisticated radar and satellite tracking, it would take a catastrophic series of system failures for a flight to simply disappear without a trace.
Even if a flight could simply vanish, surely it wouldn't take more than a few days — or even a few weeks — to find a Boeing 777, with dozens of planes, submersibles, and ships searching for it.
Yet three months have now passed since Malaysian Flight 370 veered off course soon after it left Kuala Lumpur, and its fate remains unknown despite extensive searches costing between $33 and $42 million. As days turned to weeks anguished relatives of the victims hurled insults and even protested, accusing officials of not doing enough to find the plane.
So what went wrong? Many factors contributed to the prolonged search, but by far the most important was false and incomplete information directing searchers in the wrong areas. Initial information suggested that the plane went down in South China Sea, along its original route, but as new information was analyzed (including from spy satellites that rival countries were cautious about sharing), the search area shifted again, and then again.
The plane's transponder stopped transmitting location data (whether due to a power failure or pilot action remains unknown) as it slipped out of radar range. Beyond that it became anyone’s guess where the plane went. Many of the techniques that police and investigators would use to help locate a missing person on land were not available in the search for MH 370.
For example cell phone signals from many of the 239 people on board the flight have not been found, likely because the plane was flying too high; and even if it had been flying at a lower altitude, there are no cell phone towers in the middle of the Indian Ocean to pick up the signal.
The best hope was the airplane's "black box," equipped with an electronic pinger that sends out a regular sound for as long as the battery holds out — which stopped about two months ago. Investigators believed they had located it in April, but after weeks of fruitless searches they concluded it had been a mistake.
According to a New York Times piece, faulty readings had led them to the wrong search area: "Michael Dean, a United States Navy official… said the pings detected in early April were probably not from the black boxes, and could have in fact been from the search ships themselves or the underwater craft."
Though the search has not ended, with the pinger battery now dead the investigators have very little to go on. As a CNN story put it, with the recent loss of the pinger data "MH370 search goes back to square one."
Other Flight Disappearances
When Air France Flight 447 disappeared over the North Atlantic in 2009, it took two years and $100 million to find the wreckage despite the fact that floating debris was found within a week of the plane's loss. As of now not a single trace of Flight 370 has been found. It is possible that the plane will never be found, or if it is, it will be located by accident; after all, the search is enormously expensive.
By one estimate the search could end up costing nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. The hard reality is that economic times are tough all over the world, and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent trying to recover this one flight might be used for more productive purposes.
Though a handful of countries have donated ships and searchers, it is not the obligation of the United States or Australia (nor their taxpaying citizens) to spend tens of millions of dollars looking for a single aircraft from a private Malaysian airline with no guarantee of success.
Obviously determining what happened might help to improve airline safety, but if this was a case of pilot sabotage, as some have suggested, then there's little that can be done except to improve pilot screening and airplane tracking — measures which can be implemented without locating Flight 370.
Though we like to think that science is a panacea, all the sophisticated technology in the world can't overcome the simple fact that the plane was lost over an immense ocean. Investigators have of course narrowed down the search area based on known factors such as the airplane's amount of fuel and last heading. But beyond that, finding a plane that's about 200 feet long in the moving currents of the Indian Ocean is a daunting task even under the best of circumstances.