Almost exactly one year ago, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The Boeing 777-200ER seemed to be on a routine night flight up north, and there were no indications that something onboard would go very wrong. Then, on March 8, 2014, at 1:21 a.m. local time, the aircraft disappeared from secondary radar just before the IGARI waypoint off the Malaysian coast. It later reappeared on Thai and Malaysian military radar, but was lost again at 2:22 a.m. A last full-satcom ping from the aircraft registered at 8:11 a.m., more than 1-hr. after the 777 should have landed in Beijing. Malaysia recently declared all 239 people aboard dead.

MH370 was not the first aircraft in aviation history to be lost for a long time, and some, albeit in cases not as high profile, have actually never been found. But few other aircraft crashes have dominated global news so intensely for such a lengthy period of time. Public pressure to find both the aircraft and the cause of its disappearance has been enormous; myriad theories—including a hijacking to North Korea or a landing on one of the South Pacific’s remote islands—have been debated. 

That the mysterious disappearance of a modern widebody aircraft leads to such scrutiny and heightened emotion is only natural. But the industry’s and, in particular, regulators’ response to MH370 has also been driven by pressure and emotion. It should not have been. A rational analysis shows the response has been imperfect at best. The discourse falls short of what the industry should be thinking about and discussing with rulemaking institutions, chiefly the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

What has emerged so far from MH370 is the issuance of new global regulations on flight tracking. Airlines and their suppliers must modify aircraft to ensure they can be tracked more closely. This process will take years but it will, no doubt, eventually lead air traffic control and airline-operations centers to know an aircraft’s location more precisely at any time.

But that has never been the real problem. The current tracking system is not perfect, but it works in principle. What better tracking may do when another aircraft disappears is allow it to be found more quickly, given the shorter intervals between automatic position reports and some early hints as to what may have gone wrong when the system transmits data in emergency mode. But what better tracking will not do is prevent accidents. 

What would be more core to the subject is a discussion about how crucial operating data should be better transmitted for analysis, and how transmission can be guaranteed. That part of the discussion has not received the attention it deserves.

What is also missing, at least in the recent ICAO decisions, is how aircraft instruments can be made more tamperproof so transponders or other data-transmitting devices cannot be turned off inflight. This is now speculation, but circumstantial evidence suggests that MH370 was tampered with. Although the trans-ponder was no longer transmitting signals, the aircraft continued to fly for about 7 hr. The pilot community has raised concerns about an electrical system over which the crew would have no control, even in the case of fire. These concerns have to be taken seriously, but they need to be part of a broader debate.

In fairness, because so little is known about what happened to MH370, it is hard for the industry and safety authorities to draw conclusions. But it seems the conclusions drawn do not touch the core of the issue.

Dramatic events like the disappearance of MH370 often lead to drastic action. But it has to be noted that—in the theory of an inflight hijacking—there is no guarantee against a repetition should the hijacker have sufficient technical skills. And no improved tracking device will be of any benefit when its power supply is cut.