Flight 370’s Loss Changes Minds About Real-Time Tracking

An unidentified woman with her face painted, depicting the flight of the missing Malaysia Airline, MH370
An unidentified woman with her face painted, depicting the flight of the missing Malaysia Airline, MH370

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

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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.

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Cases like the Yemenia crash and Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) 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. (JBLU:US), 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.(BA:US) 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. (FDX:US), 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.


SOURCE : Business Week

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