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AirAsia flight QZ8501: Anger grows over flight tracking lessons not learnt as Indonesian authorities conclude plane is on the seabed

BY SIMON CALDER

Another plane at the bottom of the sea, another search area widened: events in south-east Asia following the crash of flight QZ8501 have taken on haunting dimensions of the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March.

The AirAsia flight, with 162 people on board, lost contact with air-traffic controllers shortly after dawn, local time, on Sunday. The Airbus A320 was flying from Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya to Singapore.

Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency concluded that the aircraft is on the seabed, in a relatively shallow area of the Java Sea between Borneo and Sumatra. But as any hope of finding survivors was dashed, the families of the passengers and crew faced a second night of uncertainty.

Two days of aerial searches involving aircraft from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have failed to identify any wreckage. An oil slick sighted during the day on Monday was found to be unconnected with the loss.

The losses of MH370 and QZ8501 took place in very different circumstances. The disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines jet remains shrouded in mystery, with general acceptance that the transponder was deliberately switched off to avoid detection, at a point where the aircraft was out of contact with air-traffic controllers in both Malaysia and Vietnam. “Pings” from the Boeing 777’s engines have led investigators to search a swathe of the Indian Ocean west of Australia, where the jet is presumed to have crashed after fuel ran out.

The AirAsia flight was in normal flight above a relatively narrow area of sea, in an area busy with other aircraft. Investigators are not exploring the possibility that the loss was deliberate.

Nevertheless, anger is growing that lessons from the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines jet have not yet been implemented by the aviation community. Some observers believe that real-time flight tracking, where the position of each aircraft can be continuously monitored, should have become mandatory after the loss of Air France flight 447 five years ago.

Technology allowing airlines to track their aircraft is widely available. A Canadian company, Flyht, sells a system that should have enabled rescuers to pinpoint QZ8501. If an aircraft encounters an emergency, the “Automated Flight Information Reporting System” (AFIRS) streams cockpit voice recordings and flight data to receiving stations in real time. The information, equivalent to that recorded by the aircraft’s “black box”, would help investigators to understand what caused the loss of the aircraft and where it is likely to be located. The equipment has been certified for use on the Airbus A320, but is not currently fitted to AirAsia aircraft.

In May, the UN International Telecommunications Union Secretary-General, Hamadoun Touré, said: “We must make every effort at the international level to develop real-time tracking solutions for the aviation industry.” But the UN agency responsible for passenger flights, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), has not issued any instructions to airlines to install the equipment.

Scott Anderson, an analyst for the aviation website Leeham News and Comment, said: "It's time for ICAO to make a decision, and if it doesn't then individual country regulators need to step up and require real-time tracking.

“This won't save the lives lost but recovering wreckage and the black boxes in a timely manner could lead to safety and operational changes that will save lives in the future.”

Some experts have speculated that the Airbus was flying too slowly for its altitude, but without data from the “black box” there can be no certainty.

A statement from AirAsia in Surabaya said: “We have been keeping the families updated on the search and rescue efforts as well as provide emotional support. Another group of AirAsia officials are providing the same to the families based in Singapore.”

As the search continues, attention is focusing on the pilots and whether they may have responded inappropriately to stormy weather. As with AF447, which was flying from Rio to Paris, the AirAsia jet was flying through an equatorial area. The sun’s energy creates thunderstorms that present a threat to aircraft. The pilots requested a change of direction and height shortly before it disappeared from the radar screens. The increase in altitude was refused by air-traffic controllers because of the presence of other traffic.

At a press conference in Surabaya, AirAsia’s chief executive, Tony Fernandes, said: “We really can’t speculate until we find the aircraft. Then we’ll see what we need to improve - if we need to improve.”

In April, AirAsia was forced to remove its inflight magazine following the disappearance of MH370. An article by a retired pilot, said:“Pilot training in AirAsia is continuous and very thorough. Rest assured that your captain is well prepared to ensure your plane will never get lost.”

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