Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which disappeared March 8, lacked a simple computer upgrade that could have made a world of difference by providing crucial satellite data to the unprecedented international search effort, which entered its thirteenth day Thursday.
The upgrade, which Malaysia Airlines decided not to purchase, has a wholesale price of only $10.90 for each flight. The upgrade for a system called Swift could have continued to send flight data by satellite even after MH370’s transponder and Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, were switched off, The Washington Post reported on Thursday, citing a satellite industry official with knowledge about the equipment.
According to investigators, the transponder and the ACARS on the plane -- which went missing with 239 people on board on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing -- were deliberately turned off before the plane is suspected to have continued flying for another seven hours. However, if MH370’s Swift system had been upgraded, it could have sent information on the plane’s engine performance, fuel consumption, speed, altitude and direction, even if the transponder and ACARS were disabled, the Post reported.
“When ACARS is turned off, Swift continues on. If you configure Swift to track engine data, that data will be streamed off the plane. It continues to be powered up while the aircraft is powered up,” the official, who compared the Swift system to a mobile phone sending data to a satellite, told the Post.
In 2009, satellite data from a similar computer upgrade helped investigators find an Air France jet, which had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to data provided by the upgrade, investigators were able to quickly narrow their search area to a radius of about 40 miles in the Atlantic Ocean, the Post reported.
The full package of the Swift system is used by many major airlines, and the details it provides are authorized by international aviation guidelines and required equipment for airlines that frequently fly the North Atlantic corridor between the U.S. and Europe. However, according to the satellite industry official, there are no such requirements for planes flying other corridors elsewhere in the world.
Asked why an airline might decide not to buy a relatively inexpensive piece of technology, Zainul Zawawi, vice president for North America operations at Malaysia Airlines, told the Post: “Every pound on an aircraft is fuel consumed. As in all matters, it always comes down to cost.”
The search effort for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, which is reportedly the largest in aviation history, now covers about 2.24 million square nautical miles of the Indian Ocean, ranging from the west coast of Malaysia to the waters off Perth, Australia.