What Happens When A Commercial Jet Disappears

What Happens When A Commercial Jet Disappears

What Happens When A Commercial Jet Disappears


We’ve all heard of accidents involving airliners. From human error to fatal malfunctions, the cause of aircraft accidents are not always directly identifiable  – hence, careful investigations are crucial. If there is one thing we can learn from them, is to continuously improve on aircraft designs, systems and industry processes.

  1. Initial Signs


The typical indication of a missing aircraft: it vanishes off the radar or fails to respond to air traffic control. While this may seem easy to spot, it may in fact take up to 15 minutes before a plane’s disappearance is noticed. Conversely, aircraft on a busy flight path are more likely to be noticed in mere moments.

When the traffic controller notices that a plane is missing from radar, they will contact the next radar facility on the aircraft’s flight path. Following this, other facilities in the area will also be contacted to see if anyone can detect the aircraft. If all surrounding facilities are unable to detect the aircraft, its destination airport is notified. In most cases, the destination airport will take the decision to officially announce the aircraft’s disappearance.

  1. The Search Begins


International search protocols call for all parties – including passenger planes, military aircraft, civilian boats, and naval vessels – to begin looking for the missing aircraft by sight and via radar. This begins once the disappearance has been announced.

Investigation into the disappearance is usually led by the country in which the aircraft is registered (State of Registration), or its destination country. The members of an investigating team will each focus on a different potential cause, such as weather, security, human factors, and on the aircraft itself.

  1. Ripple Effects

Depending on the nature of the disappearance, other flights will rarely be affected. However, in the event of a disappearance caused by an apparent act of terror, some flights may be grounded or diverted in the interest of safety.

The departure airport will scan its runways for debris or parts that may have fallen off the missing aircraft during take-off. If nothing is found, other flight operations will proceed.

  1. What Happens Next?


The duration of an aircraft search can vary – the official search for Malaysia Airlines MH370 was called off after 4 years, while the active search for a passenger plane carrying Argentine professional football player, Emiliano Sala ended within three days of the disappearance.

If the wreckage of a missing aircraft is found, investigations will be made to determine the cause of the crash. If in water, the fuselage or debris will be dredged up; if on land, accident investigation teams and relevant authorities will visit the accident site to collect as much information as possible.

At this point, investigations do not only revolve around the aircraft. The airline will also be looked into, to eliminate all possibilities of human error. In the case of Lion Air Flight JT 610, which plummeted into sea en route to Jakarta due to a maintenance fault, the airline’s Technical Director and engineers in charge of the flight were removed from the company.

Many wonder why, despite this technologically advanced age we live in, effective tracking technology isn’t readily available when it comes to searching for missing planes. The answer is plain and simple – it is not readily available. Reliable and efficient tracking systems for an aircraft that has fallen off radar are difficult to achieve, and are not the most economically viable option. It is with optimistic anticipation that the air travel industry hopes that readily available options will soon be widely available for commercial jets. Until then, diligent maintenance practices and stringent safety laws are in place to keep aircraft disappearances at bay.


Dviation delivers aircraft maintenance services and training so that aircraft can be kept safe and reliable. Find out more here!



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