On March 4th, head of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chris Hart expressed his concern that international efforts to improve airline safety efforts have thus far fallen short. After Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared two years ago, lax safety standards were thrust into the headlines, both in the U.S. and abroad. Since the MH370 mystery captured international attention in 2014, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency that regulates airline safety standards, has attempted to address the most pressing safety concerns. However, complicated international politics and the necessity of complex, transnational agreements make substantial safety regulation reform an arduous process.
Among the most notable of the ICAO’s post-MH370 actions is a requirement that planes in distress must automatically report their position and flight information in order to assist in wreckage recovery. However, this requirement will only apply to planes manufactured in the past six years, because the expense of upgrading older planes was met with protests from airlines.
The ICAO also recently approved a requirement that all airliners be equipped to report their position at regular 15-minute intervals when flying over the open ocean by November of 2018. Flight-tracking technology has greatly improved in the past few decades, and the main satellite providers have volunteered their services to airlines for free. These tracking services require airlines to equip their planes with special satellite communications technology, though, which is another costly upgrade. The U.S. has enacted its own regulation that all airlines operating in U.S. airspace be outfitted with the new technology by 2020, but pushback against the cost-prohibitive upgrades have hindered the creation of a similarly comprehensive international deadline.
Despite some progress toward eliminating airliner safety gaps, the ICAO has thus far failed to introduce what many in the industry believe are necessary safety regulations. The ICAO has yet to approve any new standards for mandatory in-flight cockpit video and audio recording devices, which may help investigators to discover the causes of otherwise mysterious crashes. Even if the ICAO does introduce such a measure, pilot unions have already spoken out against such a regulation based on the intrusive nature of the technology. Further delaying airline safety reform is the complex procedure of regulating a widespread industry that is inherently international. If and when regulations are approved, the deadlines for technology and equipment upgrades are necessarily pushed out to allow even the smallest of airlines to comply. International politics are also inevitably at play; in 2015, Russia vetoed a UN resolution to establish an international tribunal to investigate the MH370 incident, despite widespread international support.
While the obvious answer to stalled international attempts to regulate airline safety seems to be the implementation of individual, national safety criteria, such a solution is fraught with both economic and practical concerns. Because the airline industry is highly globalized, airline companies based in countries with more stringent standards, requiring more expensive technology upgrades, will be at an economic disadvantage compared to their competitors. Without standardization of safety regulations across countries, it will be impossible to educate consumers across the globe on the different levels of safety risk they are agreeing to (and paying a premium for) when they purchase their airline tickets. A broad solution to the issue of airline security seems far from certain, but the industry and its regulators will likely continue to feel pressure as the international community remains concerned about the issue in the wake of the MH370 disappearance.
Jane Rugg is a 1L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a staff editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.