Will the families of those lost on Malaysia Air Flight 370 ever get an answer to the big question — what happened? After almost a month of looking for the wreckage and clues to the flight’s disappearance, officials in Malaysia and Australia have begun tempering expectations about the success of the search efforts. We may never know what happened, or find enough of the wreckage to make that determination:

A police investigation may never determine the reason why the Malaysia Airlines jetliner disappeared, and search planes scouring the India Ocean for any sign of its wreckage aren’t certain to find anything either, officials said Wednesday.

The assessment by Malaysian and Australian officials underscored the lack of knowledge authorities have about what happened on Flight 370. It also points to a scenario that becomes more likely with every passing day – that the fate of the Boeing 777 and the 239 people on board might remain a mystery forever. …

Police are investigating the pilots and crew for any evidence suggesting they may have hijacked or sabotaged the plane. The backgrounds of the passengers, two-thirds of whom were Chinese, have been checked by local and international investigators and nothing suspicious has been found.

“Investigations may go on and on and on. We have to clear every little thing,” Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. “At the end of the investigations, we may not even know the real cause. We may not even know the reason for this incident.”

That will understandably enrage the survivors of Flight 370, but it raises questions for the airline industry beyond this particular incident. Most people believed that such a disappearance was all but impossible in the modern age of air traffic control and satellite communications. The inability to provide any answers at all — and the inability to quickly determine where the plane actually went — has likely undermined confidence in air travel, Clive Irving wrote earlier this week:

No accident in the history of aviation has so spooked people around the world. It’s like the old Bermuda Triangle phobia but many times worse —how can a large state-of-the-art jet with an impeccable record vanish without trace?

Amazement that this is possible is turning into outrage. The public has realized that there are serious gaps in the technology used to track flights. They are rightly angered to discover that we still have to devote huge resources to finding the airplane’s black box when the same critical data could be in the hands of investigators now but for the failure to adopt live streaming.

It’s also been infuriating to watch the ineptitude—or worse—of the Malaysian authorities as they attempt to manage the grief of the families of those missing and repeatedly build hopes that wreckage has been found and then have to confess that it hasn’t.

Yahoo’s Danielle Wiener-Bronner argues that Flight 370 will change the future of flying — or it had better do so, anyway:

In order to win back some of the confidence that has built up over years of relative safety (consider that nearly 1.3 million people die in car accidents every year) the aviation industry will likely have to adopt some new standards in response to this latest tragedy. Even as they are still unsure what, if any, measures could have prevented it.

In tandem with its positive report on Tuesday, IATA said it is creating a task force to make recommendations on how to improve aircraft tracking by the end of the year. IATA General Director Tony Tyler said, “in a world where our every move seems to be tracked, there is disbelief that an aircraft could simply disappear. Accidents are rare, but the current search for 370 is a reminder that we cannot be complacent on safety,” adding “we cannot let another aircraft simply vanish.” …

Last week, Joe Kolly, the research and engineering director for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said the group is examining live-streaming some flight data recorders, removing the need to search for a plane’s black box in the event of a crash. According to Kolly, “You’re looking for what is the most important information… We have our staff involved in technical meetings and discussions and working groups on just what type of data you would need… what are the rates at which those data need to be transmitted, [and] what is going to trigger the data download.”

That would be an expensive proposition, and would be too overwhelming for real-time reactions to in-flight incidents. In the US alone, thousands of commercial flights take place every day, with so few incidents as to make this impractical, even if remote intervention would make any difference at all. But it would make recovery of the so-called “black boxes” a moot point after an incident, and might in this case have made the search efforts a lot more accurate from the first moments of awareness of the incident.

The article also notes that a $10 software upgrade would have improved the search effort, but wasn’t mandated, and better passenger screening and international data-sharing should have taken place, too. The latter doesn’t appear to have played a role in the incident (as far as is known now, of course), and Malaysian officials dispute the necessity of the former. All of these propositions are generally applicable to the industry, but until we find out more about what really took place, none of them address the why of Flight 370’s disappearance. We may have to resign ourselves to the fact that this mystery may never be solved at all.