Science, Tech & Environment

How the missing Malaysian jetliner has evolved into a media mystery spectacle


A "Pray for MH370" projection is seen on the Putra World Trade Centre building in Kuala Lumpur.


Samsul Said / Reuters

The fate of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 continues to baffle investigators. 

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Public frustration has grown seven days after the plane went missing without a trace. But Patrick Smith, a pilot and the author of Cockpit Confidential, says he's dismayed by the public's demand for fast, easy answers.

"This story has moved to a mystery story," Smith says. "And we're following it almost the way people would follow a celebrity murder trial."

The worry, Smith says, is that once the plane is found, attention will taper off before the media addresses more important questions about what exactly happened on board to cause the crash.

Smith call the lack of clues in the case "extremely unusual and unexpected," but not startling. 

"The oceans are very big, and an airplane in that context — even a wide-bodied jet liner — is very very small," he notes. 

But how do you just lose contact with a something as sophisticated as a jetliner, with modern cockpit equipment that sends out messages automatically? 

"All of that fancy equipment can be turned off," Smith says. "Think of it this way:  we're so into the immediacy and connectivity of life today, but if somebody comes around to the back of your computer and pulls the plug out, suddenly the Internet doesn't exist anymore. In the end, to some degree, it's really just all about  electricity." 

Smith says the lack of evidence is inspiring observers to come up with "increasingly outlandish theories," suggesting the airliner is in North Korea, or has landed in Somalia or Pakistan. 

Instead Smith argues, "People need to at least prepare for the possibility that we might never know what happened." 

That aside, Smith points out that 2013 was the safest year in the entire history of commercial aviation worldwide. 

"We've engineered away what used to be common, expected causes of accidents.  And we're left with these stranger ones that don't happen very often. But they do have a mystique, and a sense of mystery to them. And that causes people to really focus on them and they become media spectacles."

That encourages people to see flying as more dangerous than it really is, Smith argues. 

"It's never been safer than it is right now," he says.