By Bill Rigby
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The global aviation industry is reverberating with shock as well as a range of theories over the fate of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, but most in the business think the unsolved mystery is more of a tragic red herring than a wake-up call for drastic changes.
Despite the lack of new information, flight MH370 was at the top of the agenda on the street, at the pubs and in private meetings this week at the International Society of Transport Air Trading in San Diego, the annual gathering of 1,600 airplane makers, buyers and lessors.
"The people that I deal with are looking at this with great concern - it appears considerable efforts may have gone into cloaking the aircraft," said Robert Agnew, chief executive of aviation consultant Morten Beyer & Agnew, referring to reports that the plane's primary means of communicating with air traffic control were intentionally disabled.
"We are speculating on what was actually done in the cockpit. If this is a planned terrorist activity, could others know the process and copy it?," he asked.
Investigators are convinced that someone with deep knowledge of the Boeing Co 777-200ER aircraft and commercial navigation diverted the jet early last Saturday, carrying 12 crew and 227 passengers, perhaps thousands of miles off course.
But no physical evidence of the aircraft has been found and authorities have failed to pinpoint any passengers with a known political or criminal motive to crash or hijack the plane.
"The disappearance of MH370 has been a topic of private conversation here," said Philip Baggaley, an analyst at Standard & Poor's, attending the key annual gathering for the $110 billion a year aircraft leasing business, which has helped fuel massive recent growth in aircraft purchases, especially in Asia.
Baggaley said the consensus is that someone in the crew or among the passengers with close knowledge of how to disable communications systems took the plane over.
"They mostly guess that it crashed in the Indian Ocean, rather than landed safely at a new destination, because the plane probably would have been picked up by military or other radars if it flew over land," he said.
There are some holdouts. One aviation consultant, who asked not to be named, was adamant that Asian militaries know more about the missing plane than they have acknowledged.
"I find it hard to believe the military intelligence in the region doesn't know where that plane is," the consultant said. Those countries all spy on each other."
The theory that the plane may be safe on some remote island and possibly being repurposed for some kind of attack, was generally not given much weight.
But given the lack of hard information or evidence to study, some said it was too early to know if the Malaysia mystery will spark a revamp in industry safety or communications technology.
"Potentially yes," said Steven Udvar-Hazy, CEO of Air Lease Corp and the man who is credited with effectively inventing the modern aircraft leasing business. "Let's wait to see how this tragedy unfolds."
There have already been calls for airlines to introduce permanently switched-on Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), the equipment that automatically transmits data from a plane to the ground via radio or satellite, to ensure that an aircraft's location is always known.
But that idea was rejected by a top executive of a large aircraft leasing firm due to basic safety concerns with electronics, which may have to be shut down in an emergency.
"What do you do when it starts smoking?," he asked.
John Plueger, who works with Udvar-Hazy as chief operating officer of Air Lease Corp, did not expect a major re-evaluation of industry practices.
"It's a tragic development and I hope we never see it again, but I don't think in and of itself it causes any major changes," he said. "At the end of the day, if someone has an intent to do something, they will find a way to do it, no matter what the systems are."
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at aerospace consultant Teal Group, agreed that some lapses in security were inevitable, but ultimately never fatal to the aviation industry.
"There are bad guys out there, they will find a way, every few years, to get through our defenses," said Aboulafia, who was not attending the ISTAT conference. "It's important to remember that we have an air travel system that's the safest way to travel ever created and it's getting safer each year. There has been no long-term impact on air travel demand from any act of terror."
(Reporting by Bill Rigby, editing by G Crosse)