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Missing Malaysia Airlines flight: How MH370 will change travel

Sydney Morning Herald, 22 April 2014

In the safest era in the history of commercial aviation, the causes of ever more infrequent airliner crashes are often obvious. But MH370, the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared on March 8, is different to any other commercial aviation disaster, and one that is likely to have more far-reaching consequences for travel than most.

Unlike other crashes, MH370, an authentic mystery, has raised a myriad of issues — beyond the obvious questions of standards of safety and aircraft search and recovery — for governments, the travel industry and travellers themselves.

Here are some consequences, based on expert opinion, of the disappearance of MH370 for the travel industry and the public.

The world's most powerful tourist arrives

It's the stuff of an airline disaster response planner's worst nightmare. A decade ago, as Elizabeth Becker, the US-based author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism points out, the majority of Chinese citizens were effectively prohibited from travelling overseas.

Even a few years ago an airliner's passenger manifest would not have been dominated by Chinese nationals, as was the case with MH370. Yet by 2020, 200 million Chinese — more than the population of Brazil — are expected to travel abroad, including to Australia.

"The economic clout of the Chinese tourist is enormous," Becker says. "But they are relative neophytes in travel. They are all too familiar with their own government's censorship at home, but less familiar with the way other governments manipulate information. I'm surprised Malaysia handled it so badly . . . They'll need more than a good public relations campaign to sort this out."

Indeed, any poorly handled major airline accident involving large numbers of Chinese passengers now risks damage to not only the reputations of national carriers but to nations themselves. Malaysia Airlines, and Malaysia as a destination, have reportedly suffered sharp declines in the number of Chinese passengers and tourists visiting since the disappearance.

The wait to get through passport control may get a little longer

Among the various early theories attributed by Malaysian crash investigators to the cause of the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER was that the aircraft had been hijacked by Iranian passengers travelling on false passports.

Dr Carl Ungerer, an independent security adviser and adjunct lecturer at Queensland's Bond University, says Interpol estimates 40 million passports are missing around the world. Ungerer believes it would add a mere three or four seconds for immigration officers at airports to scan a passport to routinely check it for security against the Interpol and national-based Stolen and Lost Travel Documents databases.

This was something the Malaysian officials at Kuala Lumpur International Airport notably failed to do. "You want to be able to make sure the person sitting next to you on a plane is travelling on a legitimate travel document," Ungerer says.

"To buy a stolen passport in Thailand in order to go to Europe is not something you do accidentally. MH370 has thrown into sharp relief the flourishing black market in false passports in south-east Asia."

Interpol, by its own admission, has been asking for years why only a handful of countries are taking care to ensure "persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights".

Patrick Smith, a qualified US-based commercial airline pilot, blogger and author of the book Ask the Pilot, believes the concern over fraudulent passports inflamed by the MH370 disaster, while real, is partly exaggerated. "For better or worse, there are probably thousands of people flying around the world each day using forged or stolen documents, for any number of shady reasons," he says. "I'm not saying this is acceptable, but the reality is the vast majority of these people are not terrorists."

Who will pay for safer skies?

The disappearance of MH370 has provided unexpected lessons for the world's travelling public on some arcane aspects of aviation. Many of us now grasp the basic aspects of black box flight recorders and their limitations, breaches in cockpit security and the enormous costs associated with extended search and rescue missions.

Peter Marosszeky, a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, aviation specialist and senior researcher at the University of NSW, believes economic and practical factors may prevent improvements to aircraft flight data recorders as well as cockpit security. "The fact Malaysia Airlines decided not to have the latest software aboard MH370 in order to allow the full benefit of data transmissions to the airline and engine manufacturer is an economic problem for the operator. But the proverbial black boxes have served the aviation industry very well, and continue to do so."

However, Marosszeky believes emergency locator batteries, which are attached to each black box, could be improved to provide stronger signals over an extended period to assist with locating downed airliners. Modern aircraft are tracked by satellite, but when power is removed from the aircraft those systems are lost.

The integrity of cockpit security is another issue that has emerged following revelations that one of the pilots on the ill-fated plane had invited unauthorised guests onto the flight deck on a previous flight. Suspicions persist that someone may have gained access to MH370's cockpit during its flight.

Cockpit doors were strengthened after September 11 . "Current cockpit security is as tough as you can have it, with hardened doors and locks and a video surveillance systems for the pilots to use to assess threats from outside the door," Marosszeky says. "But this is only as good as threats made to the cabin staff outside to force the flight crew to open the door."

Putting airline safety into perspective

 In 2013, according to the International Air Transport Association, there were just 210 airline fatalities — 30 or so fewer than the likely fatality list for MH370, making the past decade or so the safest in the history of aviation.

As Smith points out, in an age when fatal crashes have become a one in 5 million flights chance, they tend to receive more intense media scrutiny and to stay in our collective consciousness for longer than in the past. "Globally, the trend over the past two decades has been one of ever-increasing safety," he says. "We will never be perfectly safe, and we will continue to see accidents from time to time — just not nearly as many as we used to."

However, David Scowsill, chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council, believes travel will quickly recover from the loss of MH370. "The airline industry is incredibly resilient," he says. "Even after an event like 9/11, there was a six to 12 months dip in air travel, but then the airline industry bounced back and the number of people flying returned to previous levels."

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