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What if the missing Malaysia plane is never found?

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- The plane must be somewhere. But the same can be said for Amelia Earhart's.

Ten days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people aboard, an exhaustive international search has produced no sign of the Boeing 777, raising an unsettling question: What if the airplane is never found?

Such an outcome, while considered unlikely by many experts, would certainly torment the families of those missing. It would also flummox the airline industry, which will struggle to learn lessons from the incident if it doesn't know what happened.

While rare nowadays, history is not short of such mysteries - from the most famous of all, American aviator Earhart, to planes and ships disappearing in the so-called Bermuda Triangle.

"When something like this happens that confounds us, we're offended by it, and we're scared by it," said Ric Gillespie, a former U.S. aviation accident investigator who wrote a book about Earhart's still-unsolved 1937 disappearance over the Pacific Ocean. "We had the illusion of control and it's just been shown to us that oh, folks, you know what? A really big airliner can just vanish. And nobody wants to hear that."

Part of the problem, said Andrew Thomas, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Transportation Security, is that airline systems are not as sophisticated as many people might think. A case in point, he said, is that airports and airplanes around the world use antiquated radar tracking technology, first developed in the 1950s, rather than modern GPS systems.

A GPS system might not have solved the mystery of Flight 370, which disappeared March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. But it would probably have given searchers a better read on the plane's last known location, Thomas said.

"There are lots of reasons why they haven't changed, but the major one is cost," he said. "The next-generation technology would cost $70 to $80 billion in the U.S."

Experts say the plane's disappearance will likely put pressure on airlines and governments to improve the way they monitor planes, including handoff procedures between countries. Flight 370 vanished after it signed off with Malaysian air-traffic controllers, and never made contact with their Vietnamese counterparts as it should have.

And if the plane is never found, liability issues will be a huge headache for courts. With no wreckage, it would be difficult to determine whether the airline, manufacturers or other parties should bear the brunt of responsibility.

"The international aviation legal system does not anticipate the complete disappearance of an aircraft," said Brian Havel, a law professor and director of the International Aviation Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago. "We just don't have the tools for that at present."

The families of the missing, of course, would face the most painful consequences of a failed search.

"In any kind of death, the most important matter for relatives and loved ones is knowing the context and circumstances," said Kevin Tso, the chief executive of New Zealand agency Victim Support, which has been counseling family and friends of the two New Zealand passengers aboard the flight. "When there's very little information, it's very difficult."

Tso said the abundance of speculation about the plane's fate in the media and elsewhere is not helpful to the families, who may be getting false hope that their loved ones are still alive.

It has been nearly 50 years since a plane carrying more than two dozen people vanished without a trace, according to a list of unexplained aviation disappearances tracked by the Flight Safety Foundation. An Argentine military plane carrying 69 people disappeared in 1965 and has never been found.

Earhart, the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean, vanished over the Pacific with Fred Noonan during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Seven decades later, people are still transfixed. Theories range from her simply running out of fuel and crashing to her staging her own disappearance and secretly returning to the U.S. to live under another identity.

There is also an ongoing fascination with the Bermuda Triangle, where several ships and planes disappeared, including a squadron of five torpedo bombers in 1945. Studies have indicated the area is no more dangerous than any other stretch of ocean.

More than two dozen countries are involved in the effort to find Flight 370 and end the uncertainty, with dozens of aircraft and boats searching along a vast arc where investigators believe the plane ended up, judging by signals received by a satellite.

Gillespie and other experts said they expect the plane will eventually be found, even if investigators have to wait until some wreckage washes ashore.

"We all expect we're going to find this plane and the chances are probably pretty good that we'll find something. But you know, I think everyone thought that about Amelia Earhart as well," said Phaedra Hise, a pilot and author of "Pilot Error: The Anatomy of a Plane Crash." "We know there's a chance that we may never find out what happened. Which is a little scary, isn't it?"

Join the discussion

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Hugh J. Myers March 18 2014 at 6:23 PM

I think this is simply another example of man thinking he is in control of this world and what happens on it but ... obviously its not true.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
motomp March 19 2014 at 1:03 AM

I love these people who say "just track their phones..." Ever heard of "AIRPLANE MODE" ? The airlines force you to disable your phone prior to take off. Secondly , once you over the ocean 20 or 30 miles, you are " OUT OF RANGE, NO SIGNAL, NO BARS" 239 USELESS CELL PHONES

Flag Reply +4 rate up
1 reply
b19821 motomp March 19 2014 at 1:09 AM

Stay here for about 5 minutes, you will think you are communicating with a large group that had frontal labotamys....

Flag Reply +3 rate up
tooeasyt March 19 2014 at 1:00 AM

no phones or laptops w/gps ?

Flag Reply +2 rate up
dandydon255 March 19 2014 at 12:53 AM

It's been beamed up to the Mother Ship.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
1 reply
Wendy dandydon255 March 19 2014 at 1:02 AM

you're funny

Flag Reply 0 rate up
michaelat33685 March 18 2014 at 6:35 PM

Here is a new but very sad theory which is very possible. The pilots go on oxygen a altitude, they slowly dump the cabin pressure to cruise altitude after about an hour or so everyone knows what is left on board alive, just the pilots. In the beginning everyone just goes to sleep without knowing what is going on & no one thinks of sending any kind of message as to them everything is normal.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
1 reply
Buddy michaelat33685 March 18 2014 at 7:17 PM

I thoroughly agree with you ,At ten Thousand feet passengers need oxygen if there is a cataclysmic breach of the plane, and then flying straight up to 35,000 feet the passengers and pilots would be dead and most probably frozen.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
Cookie March 19 2014 at 12:52 AM

That plane had been in the air for 45 minutes. I find it hard to believe that NO one person had a cell phone on. Satellites would be used for transmission. Why haven't they checked phone numbers for activity?

Flag Reply +2 rate up
2 replies
skylar253 Cookie March 19 2014 at 12:55 AM

no wifi at that altitude/IOW no cell phone usage

Flag Reply +1 rate up
b19821 Cookie March 19 2014 at 1:07 AM

God....are you braindead.....really...the cellphone....a novel idea 12 days later......

Flag Reply +2 rate up
nutsietoo March 18 2014 at 6:37 PM

During WW11 famed band leaderGlenn Miller was flying to Paris in a small plane with 2-3 other (military I think) men. The plane went down and was never found.
Never to know what happened makes the hurt even harder to accept.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
1 reply
rothhammer1 nutsietoo March 18 2014 at 6:45 PM

There was a bit of a 'dustup' going on at the time known as World War Two.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
covinasun March 19 2014 at 12:49 AM

The plane is in one of the Yemen's, whether it is North or South, they are both corrupt and home to Al Quaida.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
sdnathan March 19 2014 at 12:39 AM

Whatever the result of our sicere action in finding out the missing MHA, one basic qustion is, why , in this advanced technology, we are not warned about using a forged passport. Certainly we were not serious. Complacent ? Yes. this is the lesson. and price we paid . Just be'cos things goings well for years , do not mean that checks are to be by passed. Airtravel and for that matter any form of travel etc , travelers are to be screened with latest tech , to ensure safety.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
arbormed March 19 2014 at 12:36 AM

Why is it that anyone on the plane has the ability to turn the transponder OFF?

Flag Reply +5 rate up
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