Posted by : Des Ross Saturday, 19 April 2014

Desmond Ross discusses Flight MH 370

Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Broadcast: 10/03/2014
Reporter: Emma Alberici
Aviation security expert, Desmond Ross, discusses the possible explanations for the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines plane.


EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Desmond Ross is the Asia Pacific vice-president of the International Aviation Security Management Association. He has more than 40 years' experience as a test pilot and air traffic controller. He's also recently been an aviation security and counter-terrorism expert with the European Union mission in South Sudan. Captain Ross is the opening speaker at the Asia Pacific Aviation Security Conference being held in Canberra this week and he joins us now.

Welcome to Lateline.


EMMA ALBERICI: Are you puzzled by the lack of any confirmed sighting of debris from this plane more than 48 hours after it disappeared?

DESMOND ROSS: No, I can't say that I am, and unfortunately, the longer it takes, the more difficult it's going to be to find things. The - if the aircraft had in fact broken up at high altitude, it's probably scattered over a very wide area. If it hit water in a single piece, as it were, straight in, it would've broken up obviously at that point, but a lot of it would've gone to the depths. Small pieces of debris are extremely difficult to find over a moving ocean. I've taken part in exercises where we've been looking for bright orange rafts which - with six people on board and even when you're 500 feet above water and almost on top of them, they can still be extremely difficult to see in moving water if there are waves. I'm not familiar with that particular stretch of water, but I imagine that it's quite a busy stretch of water and that there is probably a lot of debris floating around which has got nothing to do with this aircraft accident and it'll just be rubbish floating on the ocean. I'm not particularly surprised.

EMMA ALBERICI: Does the absence of any distress calls or other radio communication with the aircraft indicate that this is most likely to have been an explosion, a bomb in mid-air?

DESMOND ROSS: There's so many different scenarios that could be true. The aircraft could have broken up, the pilots may have been incapacitated almost immediately, could've been an explosive decompression where they couldn't breathe, they couldn't reach the necessary buttons or radios. People talk about radio communications. Modern jet airliners of that type don't use normal radio communications quite so much these days. They do of course have radios and they do of course spoke to ground air traffic control and other aircraft, but the majority of communications (inaudible) data link, so that in fact it's rather like operating a laptop computer and the information, air traffic control clearances, etc., will come up on a screen. So there's not a lot of necessarily voice communication. That type of communication takes a few moments to actually put in place. They would've been out of VHF range, that is line of sight range. They would've had to use probably HF radio out there, which is not necessarily clear.

I'm not really surprised. There's also transponders. Most of the communications these days are via satellite as well and the pilot would turn a switch on a transponder, which would indicate - or can indicate by putting it on the correct frequency or the correct code, could indicate a hijack, could indicate some other emergency or problems. He obviously hasn't had time to do any of that either. Maybe he was dead. Maybe he was incapacitated. Maybe the windscreen blew out. Who knows?

EMMA ALBERICI: Given your experience with security matters in the aviation sphere, tell us, how did two people manage to check into Kuala Lumpur Airport with stolen passports?

DESMOND ROSS: Entirely a human failure on the part of the Immigration authorities and the airline itself. The responsibility for making sure that the correct people board the aircraft is really a joint one. The Immigration people are the first line of defence, as it were. When you check in, when you go through Immigration controls, the officer sitting opposite you should make sure that the face in front of him is exactly the same as the one on the passport. It would appear that that has not occurred on this occasion. The airline itself is also supposed to make an additional check before you board the aircraft. Airlines are subject to quite heavy fines. If they arrive at a destination where a passenger is not who they should be, who doesn't have a visa, perhaps, to enter a country where they're flying for, the airline is then responsible and it will pay a fine and it is also responsible for returning the passenger to its - to the point of departure. So, it's a failure all round.

EMMA ALBERICI: And it's quite unsettling to hear Interpol say that too few countries systematically screen travellers with Interpol's stolen and lost travel documents database, a database that was specifically set up after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

DESMOND ROSS: And a huge database at that. Information today indicates that there is some 39 million passports listed on this database as either being lost and/or stolen. That's an enormous number. I didn't believe it when I first heard it, but I understand it to be pretty close to correct. I don't know how long a period that has gone perhaps since the 9/11 events. But it's on a database and it's a simple matter of checking the passport that you have in your hand against the database to see whether it's a valid passport. That obviously did not occur either in this case. Australia does it as a matter of course, the US does, the UK and European countries - they do this as a matter of course to ensure that the passports are genuine.

EMMA ALBERICI: How significant is it to you that these two presumably men were travelling on stolen passports, because there has been some suggestion today that many illegal immigrants routinely collect fake documents from Thailand?

DESMOND ROSS: Yeah. And not only Thailand; it's quite a big business in quite a number of countries, including Central Asia and even some places I know of in the Pacific. And you can buy our passport with whatever photograph you want on it if you like. But it's becoming increasingly difficult. The International Civil Aviation Organization, based in Montreal, which is the peak body for aviation, is responsible for the design and ensuring that machine-readable travel documents are now becoming the standard. These machine-readable travel documents, if you've recently got a passport in the last perhaps five to 10 years, you'll find there's a little computer chip in it with biometric data on it. So it's becoming increasingly difficult to forge passports, but there's still countries out there who do not have that level of sophistication and they don't necessarily have the readers at the entry point either. Malaysia does have it and I would've thought that China also would have it by now. They're usually quite well-up with the technology. So, it's concerning. The system has broken down entirely. It's not entirely an aviation security matter, it's an immigration, border control matter. What we refer to these days is integrated border management. Everyone is supposed to talk to each other - Immigration, Customs, aviation security, but they're not doing it.

EMMA ALBERICI: And very briefly, investigators say they're still not ruling out anything, including a catastrophic mechanical failure or pilot error or both. What do you think is most likely to have happened here?

DESMOND ROSS: It's - it is pure speculation, unfortunately, until some parts of the aircraft are discovered, but I think as the seconds tick past, I think we're moving more and more closer to a - unfortunately perhaps an explosion that has been caused by perhaps a bomb. What is confusing: if it was an act of terrorism, 48 hours now into the event, there have been no claims of responsibility. And there's not much value in blowing up an aircraft if you don't tell the world why you've done it and who are you are. So, if it was al-Qaeda or any of the well-known terrorist organisations, you would've thought they might've claimed responsibility by now, which they have not done.

So, that then leads us back to the possibility of a catastrophic mechanical failure. A highly unlikely event with modern aircraft - highly unlikely. And the Boeing 777 has, to the best of my knowledge, only had one previous accident, which was a human error accident where it slammed into the sea wall in San Francisco about a year ago. I'm not aware of any mechanical or technical failures of such significance that it has either grounded or caused an accident with the 777.

EMMA ALBERICI: Captain Ross, many thanks for your time this evening.

DESMOND ROSS: Welcome. Thanks.

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