Why Can Pilots Still Turn Off Their Transponders?
There's no reason for it, and it's time for a change: Gregg Easterbrook
By Evann Gastaldo, Newser Staff
Posted Mar 18, 2014 12:54 PM CDT
A girl writes a message for passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, at a shopping mall in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, March 16, 2014.   (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

(Newser) – We might know what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were it not for one thing: The aircraft's transponder was somehow turned off. In the New York Times, Gregg Easterbrook notes that the 9/11 hijackers were also quick to turn the transponders off, which is what caused air traffic controllers to lose time trying to locate the planes. After that tragedy, Easterbrook "would have bet my life’s savings that the transponder, which broadcasts an aircraft’s location and identity, would be re-engineered to prevent hijackers from turning such units off," he writes. "But nothing was done."

The ability to turn a transponder off "is a vestige of an earlier era," and today, there is no longer any reason for a transponder to include an off switch. "Pilots like their locations to be known—for ground assistance, and because the transponder warns other nearby planes of their course and altitude," Easterbrook writes. "Only a hijacker at the controls of an aircraft would want the transponder silent." That's why we need to institute an automatic, location-based broadcasting system that neither the flight crew nor a hijacker can shut down. Click for his full column.

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Showing 3 of 24 comments
Geno Tanna
Mar 24, 2014 2:32 PM CDT
Someone wrote " They lock themselves behind an unbreachable door". I have news for you, those doors are far from unbreachable. Not to mention the fact that pilots have to open these doors when they have to take their meals and to go to the restroom. 9/11 situations are less alikely but definitely not impossible to duplicate.
Zebulon Conrail
Mar 19, 2014 3:10 PM CDT
Yes, pilots can turn off the transponder. In the unlikely event that there is an electrical fire involving the transponder, it will need to be taken off line. Also, some airports want transponders off or on stand-by while you are on the ground to minimize clutter on the scope. If you take off and forget to turn it on, it's not a big deal. ATC will say "Verify transponder on" and you then say "oops" to yourself, turn it on, and reply "Affirmative, it's on." ATC will chuckle and say "Roger, receiving your transponder now.". By the way pilots can also fly a plane into a mountain or the ground or the ocean. Making transponders that cannot be controlled by the pilot will solve nothing but may result in an electrical fire.
Dave Morris
Mar 19, 2014 10:50 AM CDT
Look, the point is if we cannot trust the pilots, whom can we trust at all? They can do absolutely anything they want with the plane. Screw the transponder.