Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Fidley Watch - Lost

By Chris Philips, Managing Editor

At press time, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, operating
on a Boeing 777-200, had been missing for 12 days
after leaving Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia bound for
Beijing, China. The flight was carrying a total number of 227
passengers and 12 crewmembers, and of course our thoughts
and prayers go out to those on the flight and their relatives
and loved ones.

Speculation as to the whereabouts of the plane and its
passengers has run the gamut from the simple to the absurd,
and we don’t presume to know any more than anyone else
about the fate of flight 370. We do, however, know the
location of the 333-meter by 38-meter MSC Fantasia. At
press time the Panama-flagged vessel had left her last port of
call, Heraklion, Greece, and was underway at 11.7 knots on
her way to Haifa, Israel, after a presumably pleasant cruise
through the Mediterranean, Aegean and Ionian Seas.
We know this because, after 9/11, the development
and implementation of maritime AIS transitioned from
a communication and collision avoidance system to a
maritime security necessity, and in 2002 IMO mandated a
class A transceiver for most large vessels over 300 GT on
international voyages, including cruise ships. These vessels
can now be tracked and identified through their onboard AIS

There are roughly 20,000 commercial airliners in service
worldwide, from large widebody jets like the 777 to small
regional aircraft. Meanwhile, based on data from 2011, there
are more than 50,000 ships worldwide of 500 GT or greater.
Each of those ships is required to carry AIS, and can be
located, in many instances, by shore-based AIS stations, and
even satellite-based AIS.

It’s still a big ocean, but it’s getting smaller with the help
of technology. It’s also a dangerous place, some parts more
than others, as is described by John-Clark Levin on page 31
of this issue. While the carriage of AIS is mandated for vessels
of greater than 300 GT engaged in international trade, the
system can be shut down or disabled by unwelcome guests
(or the crew), and enforcement while a ship is in transit is
virtually impossible. Still, the system works well, and the
technology is improving with each generation.

Apparently, some commercial airliners are equipped
with a similar (although not mandatory) system. Automatic
dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) provides data that
can be aggregated with schedule and flight status data from
airlines and airports to track a passenger jet’s speed, altitude,
heading and speed, as well as showing the international call
sign and a track of the plane’s progress. Roughly 60 percent
of all passenger aircraft (70 percent in Europe, 30 percent in
the US) are equipped with an ADS-B transponder (the Boeing
777 is one of those planes).

Whatever the sad fate of flight 370, it won’t be the same as
that of the famous ghost ship Marie Celeste or, more recently,
the Lyubov Orlova, which threw off her shackles on the way
to the breakers and wandered the North Atlantic for a year.
While neither maritime AIS nor aviation-based ADS-B are
foolproof, the great strides made in technology every year
continue to make the world a smaller, safer place, despite

some bad news now and then.