Digital

Airline Tracking Improvements Could Be as Easy As Upgrading Software

Apr 06, 2014 4:00 pm

Skift Take

Looks like the Malaysia Airlines disappearance will lead to change where other accidents have failed to make ground.

— Jason Clampet

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Rob Griffith  / Associated Press

A U.S. naval officer talks with a crewman as they stand next to part of the towed pinger locator before its fitted to the Defence ship Ocean Shield to aid in her roll in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in Perth, Australia, Sunday, March 30, 2014. The towed pinger locator is decided to locate a signal emitted by aircraft black box recorders. Rob Griffith / Associated Press


Clinging to wreckage in the Indian Ocean, Bahia Bakari could hear the cries of other plane-crash survivors in the darkened waters around her.

As the night wore on and no rescuers arrived, the voices gradually silenced until there were none, she said afterward, according to France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analysis. It wasn’t until hours later in daylight that a boat from the Comoros Islands picked up the 14-year-old, the lone survivor among 153 people on a Yemenia Airways flight that plunged into the sea in 2009.

Cases like the Yemenia crash and Malaysian Airline System Bhd. Flight 370, missing since March 8 in the longest disappearance in modern passenger-airline history, are spurring calls by global safety groups to require better technology to help rescuers and investigators find planes in remote areas.

“They would have gotten to those people within probably a half an hour and many of them would have been rescued” if the plane had systems pinpointing where it went down, said Blake van den Heuvel, a director of business development at DRS Technologies Inc., which makes crash-proof locator devices.

The obstacles to better and mandatory flight tracking are less about technology than whether improvements are worth the cost, since so few planes disappear, and about whether to upset a decades-old philosophy that pilots should be able to shut down electronic components in emergencies.

“It is absolutely unacceptable in today’s day and age to not know where an airplane is,” Dave Barger, chief executive officer of JetBlue Airways Corp., said April 3 in an interview on Bloomberg Television.

Black Boxes

The quest for solutions sweeps in global regulators, airlines and aerospace manufacturers. Depending on the enhancements ordered, from real-time satellite monitoring to black boxes that would float after a water impact, the cost of improvements could be more than $1 billion, far exceeding the costs of the Malaysia Air search so far.

Most airliners now are equipped with emergency locator beacons that don’t work under water and data recorders whose battery-powered homing signals will last only about 30 days.

After Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean June 1, 2009, killing all 228 aboard, it took almost two years to find the wreckage.

The lag time prompted the French BEA, as the accident investigator is known, to urge the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization to study aircraft-tracking improvements.

Data Streams

The BEA identified two areas with the most potential: requiring airliners to regularly transmit location, even over polar and ocean regions, and adding a flight recorder that would jettison from a plane and float after a crash in water.

Another solution would be to send a constant stream of data to ground stations on the plane’s path and performance, Chris McLaughlin, a spokesman for London-based satellite provider Inmarsat Plc, said in an interview. That data would replicate at least part of the function of the so-called black box recorders, he said.

Many planes have satellite-communication capability and would need only a software upgrade to report position. Still, airlines would have to pay for added data transmissions, just as mobile-phone customers pay for texts and data downloads. The costs of those transmissions would vary widely, depending on what satellite packages they buy.

Also, the system most airlines use sends data at speeds of 1990s modems, McLaughlin said. That’s far too slow to handle real-time data streams. Boeing Co. and Inmarsat are working together to develop a high-speed data network to be available within a few years, McLaughlin said.

Air France

Because of the cost and transmission limitations, an ICAO group studying the issue is developing standards for a compromise system. It would send a burst of data to satellites if a plane’s systems detected an emergency, said James Cash, the former chief technical adviser for recorders at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

Most airliners flying international routes are equipped to report their positions every minute or two, said Cash, who worked with the ICAO group until his retirement last month. At least two carriers, Air France and cargo-carrier FedEx Corp., have begun tracking their planes that way, he said.

Like other types of cockpit communications, such data reporting wouldn’t help track a plane if pilots purposely disabled it, he said. The data-communications system transmitting a jet’s location, known by the acronym Acars, didn’t function on the missing Boeing 777.

Pilot Authority

Pilots are used to having their every move followed by data-hungry airlines and wouldn’t mind some forms of real-time monitoring, said Sean Cassidy, a pilot and safety chief of the Air Line Pilots Association.

They would object if conversations from the cockpit were transmitted over airwaves, or carriers used data to punish flight crews, Cassidy said in an interview. ALPA is the largest pilot union in North America.

Pilots also want to retain the ability to switch off Acars and transponders used to identify a plane to controllers on the ground, he said. The only way to halt an electrical fire may be to cut power to a malfunctioning piece of equipment, he said.

The Malaysian jetliner, carrying 239 people to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, vanished after Acars and the transponder system were shut off. The way the plane then turned off course toward Malaysia and out into the ocean has convinced investigators someone sought to cloak its path, according to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Joint Effort

Investigators have estimated Flight 370’s likely final location by analyzing hourly pings between the plane and an Inmarsat satellite above the equator. That imprecise method has forced searchers to spread out over 217,000 square kilometers (83,784 square miles) of open water.

Air and sea patrols by Australia, Malaysia, China, the U.S., South Korea, New Zealand and Japan haven’t found any trace of the plane.

The Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit group, and the International Air Transport Association, a Montreal-based industry group, last week endorsed some form of flight monitoring or emergency beacons.

They’re working together to develop proposals by the end of the year, Ken Hylander, acting president and CEO of the foundation, said in an interview.

It’s premature to begin discussing specific technologies or security measures until more is known about the Malaysia flight, Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for the Washington-based trade group Airlines for America, said in an e-mail.

Highest Score

The plane-tracking system that received the highest total score for practicality and cost in the BEA’s analysis was a combination black-box recorder and emergency-locator beacon that would break away from a plane during a crash.

Some of the Australian planes combing the Indian Ocean for the Malaysian 777 are equipped with these deployable recorders, DRS’s van den Heuvel said in an interview from Ottawa. DRS Technologies, a Crystal City, Virginia-based subsidiary of Italy’s Finmeccanic SpA, has sold about 5,000 of the devices, mostly for military aircraft such as the Boeing F-18 fighter jet, he said.

Other aerospace suppliers, such as the U.K.’s HR Smith Group, make similar products.

Response Demanded

The devices can’t be shut off by a pilot and haven’t failed in accidents occurring below supersonic speeds, he said. The emergency-locator beacons transmit Global Positioning System coordinates to satellites once triggered, helping rescuers know within minutes where to hunt for wreckage, van den Heuvel said.

Adding floating black boxes to existing jets could cost as much as several hundred thousand dollars per aircraft, Cash said in an interview.

Installing the device in a new plane costs about $30,000, van den Heuvel said.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which would set standards for tracking equipment, is working with industry and international groups, the agency said in an e-mailed statement.

Regardless of what technology regulators and airlines choose, the spectacle of a multimillion-dollar plane carrying 239 people vanishing demands a response, said Hylander, of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.

“We really as an industry have to figure out how to do better,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net; Andrea Rothman in Toulouse at aerothman@bloomberg.net. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net. 

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