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Travel technology

Thursday, March 13, 2014 - Updated: 9:13 AM


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Pull yourself away from the nonstop TV news about the lost Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 for just a few minutes. Let's look back at what we've just learned about our 21st-century selves.

We are surrounded by our personal high-tech indulgences and necessities. We drive cars with OnStar technology that enables someone to locate us every moment. Our GPS devices enable us to find any place, any time. Our smartphones, tablets and laptops can talk to one another anywhere on Earth via Wi-Fi that links with orbiting satellites and stores data in clouds, for goodness sake.

But we are hunting for Malaysia Flight 370 almost the same way we hunted for Amelia Earhart's plane.

Radar technology is basically old and hasn't helped much. The airplane's transponder (that at least tells the ground where it is) was manually turned off or at least stopped functioning in mid-flight.

So the experts have told us it comes down to this: The only sure way we'll know what happened to the plane is to first find it. Then maybe we'll find the black box that can tell us what really happened to the plane. Or maybe not.

And we've found one more tech gap that's perhaps even more off-putting (see also: terrifying). In many exotic places around the planet, we are still protecting ourselves from the possibility that evil-doers may be traveling with fake identities and stolen passports about as well as we protected ourselves in the run-up to Sept. 11, 2001.

Malaysia Airlines employees apparently failed to check manually their daily worldwide list of stolen passports and compare them with their Flight 370 manifest. Now we know two passengers were not the Europeans their passports said they were -- they were Iranians, using passports the world knew were stolen in Thailand.

Whoa. What the hell is the matter with us?

Why haven't our leaders and experts done a better job of safeguarding us with 21st-century travel technology when we fly? And, since we are asking, why haven't those of us in the news media -- who play roles of watchdogs and agenda-setters -- alerted the post-9/11 world to these gaps?

Let's start with the stolen passports, because that should be easy to fix. If you lose your ticket to a concert or football game, you can tell authorities and no one will be able to enter the theater or stadium with your lost/stolen ticket.

Airline computer systems must be reprogrammed so passengers using stolen passports will be automatically red-flagged and prevented from boarding a plane. It can be done -- now. Our safety cannot depend upon an airline employee's human error, laziness or criminal indifference.

Now, about those black boxes. It is absurd that the world was put into a position where it has no reliable info on where the Malaysia Airlines plane was flying when it went down.

But we also now know that there is far more we can do. On Tuesday, March 11, The Washington Post's Brian Fung published an important and informative article that showed us there is more world and airline industry officials can and should be doing.

While airlines in the United States are required to have an emergency locator transmitter, the International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets global standards for emergency locator transmitters, cannot mandate that all countries require their use in airlines.

"The Federal Aviation Administration wants to transition to a next-generation air traffic control system that uses satellites to keep tabs on planes," Fung reported. The new technology, replacing our World War II era's radar technology, is called "Next Gen. Satellites" and can monitor wide expanses including oceans. It can work along with another system called "automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast," in planes can use satellites to transmit system information instantly back to air controllers.

In the meantime, of course, passengers could have used cellphones to transmit info instantaneously via Wi-Fi, except for one problem. Their Malaysia Airlines plane didn't have Wi-Fi.

All of this could have already been put into practice if our leaders had taken the initiative. And that might have happened if our agenda-setters in the media had recognized the importance of their work.

But we are all lagging. That informative piece by the Post's Fung wasn't even a news story. It was a blog, titled "The Switch." Since readers may never have spotted online, the newspaper's editors at least reprinted it Tuesday -- in a narrow one-column-wide strip on page A13.

If that important piece had run at the top of Page 1, who knows? Maybe even members of Congress might have read it and been motivated to act on it.

MARTIN SCHRAM, an op-ed columnist

for McClatchy-Tribune, is a veteran Washington

journalist, author and TV documentary executive.


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