Even modern technology can fall short

When technology makes it possible for the grocery store to track a shopper’s habits to tailor coupons on the back of the receipt, a doctor in another city can review a patient’s medical exams and the cell phone signal leaves a trail telling authorities where the phone has been, it seems impossible that a Boeing 777 can simply cease to exist.

But, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has indeed, for now, vanished.

It will be found, either on the ocean floor or in the Vietnamese jungle or somewhere else, but it will be found. Objects as big as a 777 don’t just fall off the face of the planet.

In the age of instant information, where people can ask their telephone a question and receive an answer in real-time moments later, it seems impossible that an Amelia Earhart situation can still occur.

But, though the technology for tracking aircraft has improved since the pioneering aviatrix disappeared on her around-the-world trek in 1937, the over-the-ocean portions of flights aren’t tracked as closely as non-aviators might suspect.

Positions are determined via GPS, but the signal is not constant. There is not an air traffic control center in constant contact, monitoring a radar return constantly. There is no radar return to follow over the ocean.

The mere lack of information since Flight 370 disappeared in the early hours of Saturday is breeding conspiracy theories. But the issue is far more basic. Sometimes, despite all the technology, there are holes in the network.

It took five days before debris from an Air France jet that went down in the Atlantic in 2009 was found, and two years before the main part of the wreckage was located. It took 10 days to find the wreck of an Adam Air jet in Indonesia in 2007.

Planes don’t disappear as often as they did in the 1940s and 1950s, when the high-frequency radio transmission on a schedule from the airliner was used to give positions that were calculated by a navigator using a sextant and star chart.

The system still has gaps that are not technologically impossible to fill. The question is how to cover the costs of the technology that would be needed to cover every square inch of ocean with full and constantly monitored air traffic control and airplanes in constant data contact with a monitoring system somewhere. It would take an international system paid through all transoceanic aviating nations.

We’re wondering how airplanes that offer Wi-Fi can disappear, given the ability of tracking the location of our cell phones, but the technology doesn’t work that way. Location technology is not part of the transoceanic Wi-Fi aboard airplanes.

Absent an aviation-only effort, patience is what’s left, and the inability to have patience is where conspiracy theories arise in an always-on, always-connected world.