As I write this the ultimate fate of flight MH370 remains a mystery. There are hopeful tales of “pings” detected from black boxes in the Indian Ocean but, other than that, all there has been so far is speculation and the remaining vestiges of hope, held preciously by the family members of those on-board. Leaving the humanitarian aspect to one side as much as we can, the coverage has also highlighted the expectations and understanding held by the public regarding the capability of engineers.
These expectations can be sub-divided into two areas: the idea that post 9/11 we are essentially safe when flying and, should something should go wrong, that answers can be quickly found. For the past 40 years at least there has been the general view that the “world is becoming a smaller place”. An irony with this particular case being that the accessibility of air travel has been a prime driver in promoting this view. The jet age has created a world where, for those of us in the post-industrialised societies at least, the ability to cross the globe is something within the grasp of most and a banal necessity rather than a thing of wonder.
From the earliest days there has been a constant universal programme of improvement such that from a technical standpoint air travel is now extremely safe. The number of fatalities per million miles travelled for airliners is around 4. Although this is a job that will never stop, the advent of the “aircraft as terrorist weapon” age has now shifted our focus onto protection from malicious intent. New sophisticated detectors used with passengers and built in protection for the flight deck are perhaps the most visible results. However the current thinking on the disappearance of the Malaysian flight is that it was a deliberate act by someone with expertise on-board. How can we protect against that?
An improvement in our status may therefore lie with ignoring the headline grabbing sales pitch and instead emphasising how unrealistic and difficult the general expectations are
Moving to the search, we live in a time of unparalleled surveillance and monitoring so it is seemingly implausible that we have yet to find the aircraft. Possibly our “shrinking globe” mentality has led us to lose touch with just how vast an area is involved? Then again perhaps propaganda (i.e. a satellite being able to show the headline of a paper in the street) has led to an unrealistic expectation regarding surveillance capability and flexibility? I have even read a call for people to scour the Indian Ocean on Google Earth. It is not the first time I have heard of the assumption that this is a live feed.
It would appear that no matter how good we are, whether through ignorance or via deliberate circumvention, we cannot fulfil the inaccurate hopes of those outside our profession. An improvement in our status may therefore lie with ignoring the headline grabbing sales pitch and instead emphasising how unrealistic and difficult the general expectations are? To reconnect with reality and acknowledge that we cannot alone solve every problem.