WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The plane must be somewhere. But the same can be said for Amelia Earhart's.
Ten days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people aboard, an exhaustive international search has produced no sign of the Boeing 777, raising an unsettling question: What if the airplane is never found?
Such an outcome, while considered unlikely by many experts, would certainly torment the families of those missing. It would also flummox the airline industry, which will struggle to learn lessons from the incident if it doesn't know what happened.
While rare nowadays, history is not short of such mysteries — from the most famous of all, American aviator Earhart, to planes and ships disappearing in the so-called Bermuda Triangle.
"When something like this happens that confounds us, we're offended by it, and we're scared by it," said Ric Gillespie, a former U.S. aviation accident investigator who wrote a book about Earhart's still-unsolved 1937 disappearance over the Pacific Ocean. "We had the illusion of control and it's just been shown to us that oh, folks, you know what? A really big airliner can just vanish. And nobody wants to hear that."
Part of the problem, said Andrew Thomas, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Transportation Security, is that airline systems are not as sophisticated as many people might think. A case in point, he said, is that airports and airplanes around the world use antiquated radar tracking technology, first developed in the 1950s, rather than modern GPS systems.
A GPS system might not have solved the mystery of Flight 370, which disappeared March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. But it would probably have given searchers a better read on the plane's last known location, Thomas said.
"There are lots of reasons why they haven't changed, but the major one is cost," he said. "The next-generation technology would cost $70 to $80 billion in the U.S."
Experts say the plane's disappearance will likely put pressure on airlines and governments to improve the way they monitor planes, including handoff procedures between countries. Flight 370 vanished after it signed off with Malaysian air-traffic controllers, and never made contact with their Vietnamese counterparts as it should have.
And if the plane is never found, liability issues will be a huge headache for courts. With no wreckage, it would be difficult to determine whether the airline, manufacturers or other parties should bear the brunt of responsibility.
"The international aviation legal system does not anticipate the complete disappearance of an aircraft," said Brian Havel, a law professor and director of the International Aviation Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago. "We just don't have the tools for that at present."