Saturday, March 07, 2015

Malaysia to Spend $190 Million to Improve Civilian Radars: Transport minister announces plan ahead of anniversary of disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

The Wall Street Journal
By Jason Ng And Gaurav Raghuvanshi

Updated March 7, 2015 5:19 a.m. ET

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Malaysia plans to upgrade its civilian radars and is improving in-flight tracking, the transport minister said Saturday, learning from the so-far fruitless search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 a year after it disappeared.

Liow Tiong Lai said that Malaysia is committed to continuing the search for the Boeing Co. 777-200 jet, and that he remains “cautiously optimistic” that the continuing search of a 60,000-square-kilometer area in the southern Indian Ocean will find the plane. The current search effort, led by Dutch oil-and-gas company Fugro NV, is expected to end in May.

“By the end of May, if we still cannot find the plane, then we will have to go back to the drawing board,” Mr. Liow said in an interview with selected news organizations Saturday. Malaysia “will be guided” by the opinion of a panel of experts from the aviation agencies of the U.S., the U.K. and China, among others, as well as Boeing and the International Civil Aviation Organization, he said.

The missing flight took off from Kuala Lumpur shortly after midnight on March 8, 2014, en route to Beijing. About an hour after takeoff, the plane veered sharply off its flight path and disappeared from radar. For several hours, the jet continued to transmit digital information to a satellite—leaving a trail of data that investigators mined to help identify a likely crash site in the deep waters of the southern Indian Ocean, far off the southwestern coast of Australia.

A year later, no physical trace of the plane has been found. Families of the 239 passengers and crew on Flight 370 are demanding answers on what happened to their loved ones. Fugro’s search has identified 10 potential objects so far, which will be analyzed to determine if they are from the missing plane.

A one-year report—required by the ICAO—on the inquiry into the incident is due Sunday. However, as the plane remains missing, with no wreckage or flight recorders, also known as black boxes, found to help piece together what happened, the report won't be considered final.

The minister didn’t give details about any proposals Malaysia would take to a meeting next month with Australia, which has conducted the bulk of the search, and China, which had the most passengers on board and has kept the pressure on to continue the search. Scaling back the mission would be taken as a sign by the families that officials are starting to give up, even if the search isn't ended outright.

“Only when we discover what happened, will we be in a position to make sure it can never happen again,” said Greg Waldron, the Asia managing editor of industry publication Flightglobal.

Malaysia is in contact with China to provide assets for the search, Mr. Liow said, but declined to comment on any demand for Chinese help to fund the search. Zha Daojiong, a professor at Peking University, said he doubts Beijing would put up any money, in part because it would set a precedent that nations with victims from another country’s airline have to pay to find them. The 120 million Australian dollars (US$92.6 million) in costs so far have been borne by Malaysia and Australia.

Malaysia plans to invite tenders for a planned 700 million ringgit (US$190 million) upgrade of its civilian radar systems and is improving the coordination between civilian and military agencies, Mr. Liow said.

While the minister was cautious, and said that the radar upgrades were a continuing exercise as air traffic grows, the disappearance of Flight 370 did expose weaknesses in radar systems and systems to track airliners in flight.

Mr. Liow said that the Malaysian flag carrier, which has been making losses for more than three years and has been delisted from the Malaysian stock exchange, has already started tracking its planes more closely. Data from the airline’s Boeing 777 jets is now downloaded every 15 minutes instead of 30 minutes previously. For some other aircraft, the tracking is more frequent, and Malaysia is participating in an international effort to set new standards for in-flight tracking that are likely to be announced by August, he said.

“Radar upgrades and tracking are all good and well, but we still don’t know what happened,’’ said Mr. Waldron. “So, these measures may or may not prevent the reoccurrence of what is in any case an extremely rare event.”

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