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March 18, 2014

Why didn't the missing airliner's passengers phone for help?

— One of the most commonly asked questions we've received is: Why didn't the passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 use their cell phones to call for help? We all remember United Flight 93, whose passengers communicated with the ground by phone after the plane was hijacked during 9/11. Given how famous the incident subsequently became, it's hard to see why none of the 227 passengers aboard the Malaysia Airways flight attempted something similar.

One part of the answer is that, at least at first, many or all of the passengers might well have been oblivious to the fact that anything was awry. There is no evidence that the takeover of the plane was violent; the view has become increasingly widespread among investigators that the captain himself diverted the plane. By this time, it was past 1 a.m., and many passengers were no doubt asleep. Apart from the lights of the occasional ship, the sea below would have been completely dark. In such a situation, without visual reference or navigational instruments, it is almost impossible to determine one's orientation. The only way a passenger could have detected a change in course is if he happened to be watching the plane's course on the entertainment system - but the cockpit can shut that down. "There's the circuit breakers for all that stuff," says retired 777 captain Gerard Baer.

Some reports indicate that after the plane turned off its transponder and changed course to the west, it climbed sharply to 45,000 feet and then descended even more abruptly. If true, such maneuverings quite conceivably might have alarmed the passengers. But it's hard to know how much weight to give the altitude-deviation reports, since it seems unlikely that a fully-loaded 777-200ER can reach such an altitude and flat-out impossible that it could have descended so quickly. So the data might have been produced by faulty instrumentation.

At any rate, once an airliner is at 30,000 feet, cell phones no longer work. "At 3,000 feet, you can make a call, but go much higher and you can basically forget about that," says Wouter Pelgrum, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Ohio University. "You don't have coverage." Part of the problem, he says, is that cell tower antennae are pointed down, toward the ground, not up into the sky. If you're over a city, with its dense cluster of coverage, you'll have a decent chance, but not in a rural area, and even less so over the ocean.

So what about the United Flight 93 passengers? Most of their calls were made using GTE AirFones, a technology no longer in use that relied on radio waves to communicate with the ground. Malaysia Airlines offers an "air-to-ground phone" service in business class that also allows passengers to send email, but the captain can shut this down, too. Only in the later stages of United Flight 93, when the plane was nearing Washington, D.C., and below 10,000 feet, did a few cell phone calls manage to go through.

One reason for this lack of pinging might be that the passengers all had their phones in airplane mode, and it never occurred to them that something was amiss. If the plane's final destination was near Kyrgyzstan, it would have landed within an hour of dawn, giving passengers little time to notice that something was wrong with the landscape outside their window - and by the time they did, they might have been over sparsely populated landscape with little cell phone service, and/or at low altitude, where electronic transmissions of any kind would have been hard to detect.

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