Could a plane like this disappear? Photo: Getty.
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Five theories to explain how Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 could have disappeared

With no mayday call, no data and no wreckage found, conspiracy-style theories as to how Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared seem increasingly plausible. Planes don't disappear. Or do they?

The most baffling thing about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is that it is so difficult to draw parallels with similar disasters. This has never happened before. The airline, the civil aviation authority, the region’s air navigation service providers, and even the aircraft and engine manufacturers themselves appear clueless.

Modern planes don’t disappear: they are equipped with a range of high-tech reporting and recording systems, many of which send back data at frequent intervals to either the airline or the plane’s manufacturers. But, shortly after the plane reached a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, everything seemed to stop. Even publicly available information found on aviation enthusiast websites and transmitted from ADS-B trackers installed on almost all aircraft say absolutely nothing about what happened. This means the aircraft’s transponder stopped working immediately, which is incredibly rare.

The Boeing 777 series is one of the safest, most reliable aircraft in the industry and has a near perfect safety record, having been involved in only ten accidents since its debut in 1995. The aircraft in question was a 777-200ER. It was only 12 years old, and had an impeccable maintenance record.

If the aircraft had disintegrated at the point at which its transponder stopped working, there would be debris spread over a huge area – the same area that has been the main focus of all search activities. Data sent by the aircraft would have indicated some sort of change in speed or height. The area around the point where contact was lost isn’t particularly isolated and the many ships in the vicinity would have seen something, especially given the clear weather conditions at the time.

If all communication had been lost, for whatever reason, and the aircraft had continued flying on its intended course, turned back or gone wildly off course, it would have been tracked. In a region with so many separate air forces, if the aircraft had continued over Vietnam or back-tracked over Thailand then one of their air forces would’ve seen it – even with its transponder disabled.

The information released by the authorities has been confused and inconsistent to say the least – but working on the information we have, there seem to be no obvious explanations for what could have happened:

Did the plane break up mid-air?

At first glance, this would be the most likely reason for the disappearance. In 2002 a China Airlines Boeing 747 disintegrated over the Taiwan Straight, killing all 225 on board. One key parallel here is that this catastrophe took place shortly after reaching 35,000 feet. The main reason for this accident was later found to be metal fatigue caused by inadequate maintenance following a previous incident. Should this have happened to MH370 due to either a structural issue with the aircraft or an explosion caused by a bomb or an exploding fuel tank, there would be debris. In all similar incidents, the wreckage has been found not long after the crash. This makes the most common-sense explanation difficult to believe.

Did the engines fail?

Were the aircraft’s two engines to fail, the plane could still glide for 80 to 90 miles. This has happened before. In 2001 Air Transat Flight 236, a large Airbus A330 (only slightly smaller than the Malaysia Airlines 777) lost all power over the  Atlantic en route to Lisbon. The pilot managed to glide (yes, glide) the aircraft over 65 miles with absolutely no power. Everyone survived.

Did cabin pressure drop suddenly, causing the pilot to lose consciousness?

If an aircraft were to suddenly lose pressure at a very high altitude, there is a chance that this could cause the crew to lose consciousness. In 2005 this happened to Helios Airways Flight 522, a Boeing 737 flying from Larnaca to Athens. The loss of pressure was so severe that it knocked passengers and crew out for almost two hours. In this case, the pilots should have been able to react quickly and connect to oxygen masks, but didn’t. The aircraft flew for almost two more hours until it ran out of fuel and crashed. If this happened to MH370, then it doesn’t explain the sudden disappearance. Data would still be sent from the plane, and the chances are that the crew would have been able to respond.

Did the pilot commit suicide?

This has become one of the Malaysian authorities’ key focus areas. Did one of the pilots do something to crash the aircraft? This is believed to have been the cause of the 1999 Egypt Air Flight 990 crash over the Atlantic. Data recorded by the aircraft and picked up by air traffic control, together with voice recordings from the cockpit, suggested that the co-pilot played a role in this disaster – although this was denied by the airline and not confirmed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Perhaps voice recordings from the black boxes will eventually provide some sort of detail about what happened in the final minutes before, and after, contact was lost. Until then, even this explanation seems unlikely: it doesn’t explain why the plane stopped transmitting data.

Was this a terrorist attack?

This was one of the main initial lines of investigation and the discovery that two Iranian passengers were travelling on stolen European passports generated a flurry of speculation. Now that it seems these men were asylum seekers, the explanation looks much less probable. Besides, why would terrorists target a Malaysian aircraft full of Chinese nationals? Even the western Chinese separatist theory seems improbable. And again, if a bomb had gone off, there would be data or debris. Alternatively, if the plane had been hijacked, surely communication would have been made by now?

With no facts, conspiracy-style theories are becoming almost conceivable. Has there been some sort of cover-up? Did MH370 hit a military aircraft (unlikely at that height)? Was the aircraft hijacked and landed in a secret location for use later on? Did corporate or political sabotage play a role? There are even more peculiar, but strangely hopeful hypotheses involving alien abduction or time travellers from the future, along the lines of the 1989 movie Millenium.

With no mayday call, no data and no wreckage, there are too many theories to follow. Until there’s evidence that the aircraft crashed there has to be hope. After all, planes don’t just disappear. Or do they?

CORRECTION [17/02/2014]: As pointed out by a reader, Helios Airways Flight 522 did not experience a sudden loss of cabin pressure. Instead, a series of mistakes by ground and flight crews meant that the cabin never pressurised during flight, and the warning lights and siren were misinterpreted as a problem with the plane's landing gear. The pilots, crew and passengers passed out, and the plane flew on autopilot until crashing into hills near the village of Grammatiko, north of Athens.

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“There will be an absolute meltdown in 2020” : what’s holding back the introduction of electronic voting?

The government's reluctance to implement electronic voting will affect our future, and in – the case of Brexit – may have already dramatically affected our past. 

Imagine, just for a second, that the situation was reversed. Imagine if, for a hundred years, we had scanned, swiped, and tapped our votes into a secure, fool-proof electronic system and someone waddled along and said, “Alright lads, how about we try pencil and paper?”. How about we desperately try to find a spare hour to shuffle to the village hall in the rain and scratch an “X” onto a scrap of paper with a stubby bit of lead, and then let a volunteer named Deidre count it at two am? What could possibly go wrong?

If you picture this scenario – posited by my colleague Anna – then it quickly becomes clear how ridiculous it is that the UK has not yet implemented electronic voting in any lasting way, shape, or form. Not only are we not on board with popping online to vote, we’re also reluctant to use technology when it comes to marking our ballots, authenticating voters’ identities, and counting votes. Despite the success of electronic voting in countries such as Brazil, Estonia, and India, the UK continues to reject reform. Why?

 “I think the problem is political at the moment,” says Mike Summers, the program manager at Smartmatic, an electronic voting company who have run three national elections in the Philippines, have a 15 year contract with Belgium, and have counted around 3.7 billion electronic votes in 12 years. “I think there is a fear that if you enfranchise groups of younger people, then you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to vote.”

We can, however, make a pretty good guess. Smartmatic’s own research shows that 57 per cent of 18-24 year olds would be more likely to vote if they could do so online and 55 per cent said they would have used online voting at the last general election. As Labour's vote share could have been boosted at the last election if only more young people had turned out to vote, this might make electronic voting an uninviting prospect for Theresa May.

“Prior to the last parliamentary election the Labour party were vehemently in favour of electronic voting,” says Summers. “Things are moving very slowly compared to other developing and developed nations so our reading of the situation is that it’s a largely political one.”

The consequences of this inaction are severe. Holding off on a voting system that provides greater accessibility to all compromises the very notion of democracy, but it also has potentially more immediate repercussions. “In 2020 everything is going to hit the proverbial fan we’re going to be a laughing stock,” says Summers.

The reason for this is because of the wide array of elections sheduled for 2020. Not only will there be a general election, there are also police and crime commissioner elections, the London Assembly and the London mayoral elections, and also local elections. “There is real concern that because of the complexity of this event there is going to be an absolute meltdown.”

Electronic voting would help prevent such a meltdown by ensuring, among other things, that voters couldn’t accidentally mark a first past the post ballot with a preferential voting system (or vice versa), that votes could be counted faster, and that overseas votes would not be lost in the post. The last is of particular importance as the government are now planning to scrap the 15-year rule that bans long-term expatriates from voting in UK elections.

“That’s a potential five million additional expats who will be eligible to vote,” says Summers, “How are you going to service them?” The answer to that is via the postal vote, and the limitations of this traditional method make the case for electronic voting even stronger.

“Postal voters authenticate themselves with a signature – mine is easily forgeable – and their date of birth,” says Summers. “The traditional methods are not secure. With online voting we can use facial biometrics to compare a person’s digital facial portrait – a selfie, if you like – with their ID, and we can verify there is a match.

“The next problem is security, and putting your ballot in an envelope is not secure. We have very, very strong application level cryptography. The moment a voter casts their ballot we encrypt it on the voting side and digitally sign it as a method of proving the integrity. Additionally, when postal voters put their vote in the post box they have no way of checking it was received or counted, so you have no verifiability. We have a number of tools that voters can use to verify their vote was received and was included in the final tally.”

Nowhere is the importance of the postal vote clearer than in the case of Brexit. “You could argue that the outcome would have been different,” says Summers. “Lots of expats voted by post and a lot of the votes didn’t come back before the close of the election count. We have an office in Amsterdam and one of the guys plays in a local rugby club in The Hague. There are ten Brits on that team and six of them received their postal vote after the close of the election. If you’re an expat living overseas then are you going to vote for or against Brexit? If those voters had voted then the outcome could have been completely different.”

Yet the benefits of accuracy, transparency, verifiability, and accessibility are easily side-lined by one bloodcurdling word. Hackers. If Hillary Clinton’s emails can become your bedtime reading, isn’t it possible – nay, probable – that elections will be hacked, falsified, and corrupted?

“The easiest election to hack is a paper election,” says Summers. “It is important to educate people on the difference between election information systems, which the DMC use, and voting systems. The protections of voting systems are above and beyond anything you will use in any other online application, including online banking and ecommerce solutions.”

As a representative of Smartmatic, Summers would say this, but they and other companies have created a wide variety of solutions which – even if imperfect – are vulnerable to fewer mistakes than Deidre in the village hall. Even if there are flaws, it seems important to iron these out now – before 2020 – to ensure the success of electronic voting in the future.

Although the House of Commons’ Commission on Digital Democracy recommended that the UK should adopt electronic voting by 2020, there is little evidence that steps are being taken towards this goal. “I’d love to turn around and say I think steps are being taken but there is a lack of willingness to acknowledge the shortcomings that we have in terms of UK elections,” says Summers. For now, then, the debate rages on. Should we stick to the tried-and-tested, or should we transform the electoral process forever? I know – let's vote on it. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.