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Once in a while an airliner just up and disappears -- typically over ocean -- and lengthy and expensive search efforts have to be launched in order to find it. The most famous cases in recent years were of course AF447 and MH370.

It is hard for the bemused public to understand how something as large and technologically advanced as a wide-body jet can just go missing. Some people end up on websites like this one, asking why we can't just do such-and-such to make sure planes can always be found. The answers typically center around how such-and-such would actually be very expensive, and probably not 100% effective anyway. This doesn't really seem to convince most questioners, who wonder how important a bit of cash ought to be when there are lives at stake.

The purpose of this question is to clarify whether lives are actually at stake.

Suppose we had a magical technology which at negligible cost could give us reliable access to the exact flight path of an airliner in trouble anywhere on Earth. How much safer would that make flying?

For definiteness, let's assume that the magical technology gives us position samples at 1-minute intervals at a one-hour delay, so it won't be useful for real-time purposes such as ATC.

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  • $\begingroup$ just 2 gone missing over the thousands that also did the crossing? Also "GPS tracking" doesn't work like it does in the movies; a quarter sized device will not let a laptop on the other side of the world track it to any kind of precision. $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Dec 13 '14 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ @ratchet: The question is: Even if tracking technology did work like it does in the movies, would it make us any safer? $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Dec 13 '14 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @ratchet, actually, the SPOT beacon, battery powered for a satellite uplink, about the size of a deck of cards, does exactly that. I always fly with mine. Why the big airliners don't use it is beyond me. $\endgroup$ – abelenky Dec 13 '14 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ @abelenky some of them do - or at least are capable of the functional equivalent: planes with the Iridium datalink service could easily send their GPS position/speed/track information periodically. As for why they don't do it as a matter of company policy or regulation - probably cost (The cost-benefit tradeoff doesn't work out. We've had one airliner vanish mysteriously in how many years. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Dec 14 '14 at 4:57
  • $\begingroup$ @abelenky: More specifically, MH370 did fly with satellite uplink that would send it's position (at least occasionally; this thing does not report every second like ADS-B) if it wasn't disabled, most likely by deliberate action by somebody on board. If it had any better reporting, it would most likely have suffered the same fate and thus be just as useless in the end. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 14 '14 at 21:14
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Would better location tracking for airliners improve safety?

Very simply, no.... us knowing where AF447 was would have made exactly zero difference to the fact that it crashed into the ocean at 400+ knots.

Would we have had a better idea of where to find it? Most probably. Would it have saved any lives? Absolutely not.

As always, these things come down to cost-benefit, and the simple fact is that GPS tracking would prevent very, very few accidents. The only possible benefit would be that it may help us find the black box or wreckage, assisting in the investigation which may just possibly reduce the chances of a similar accident occuring in future. Note that of the two examples you gave, though, only MH370's black box hasn't been found (yet)... so even this benefit is tentative.

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    $\begingroup$ Recovering MH370's cockpit voice recorder probably won't help - it will have overwritten the interesting part of the flight. The flight data recorder would probably be of some interest if it wasn't somehow disabled early on. Even so, prospects for a major improvement in safety seem slim. $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick Dec 13 '14 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ True: there's no guarantee that having accurate location information would actually mean the black boxes would be found, nor that they would contain useful information: nor that they wouldn't be found anyway. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Dec 15 '14 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ "Would it have saved any lives? Absolutely not." It could certainly save lives. Not people onboard the accident aircraft, mind you, but people on future flights, which could be made safer based on the experiences learned from the accident. $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Dec 21 '16 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ @J.Hougaard I don't see how a bunch of GPS data from MH370 could prevent an exact repeat of the same incident $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Dec 25 '16 at 21:54
  • $\begingroup$ @JonStory I'm not saying it could, but the aviation industry does have a great record of improving safety by learning from previous incidents. Generally speaking, more data is likely to improve safety $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Dec 26 '16 at 15:20
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In case of a crash/incident where an airliner ends up on the ground, it would allow for faster search & rescue. I.e. lives may be saved since rescue arrives asap.

Second situation would be in case of an airliner cutting all communication and being used as a weapon (think 9/11). Then tracking would allow ATC/military to keep track of the airliner. But with an 1 hour delay it would probably not be relevant as a preventative measure.

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    $\begingroup$ If it's in danger of hitting anything, it must be over land, and if it's over land we can track it with radar. $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Dec 15 '14 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ There is not full radar coverage over earth´s entire landamass. And radar cannot identify a specific plane, only give information about the position of a chunk of metal in the air. $\endgroup$ – fboja Dec 15 '14 at 9:43
  • $\begingroup$ "In case of a crash/incident where an airliner ends up on the ground, it would allow for faster search & rescue.": Faster than finding the existing ELT which is already mandatory over water? "radar cannot identify a specific plane": Wrong, this is exactly what SSR does. $\endgroup$ – mins Dec 23 '16 at 16:27

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