Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Crashed Airliners Will Be Easier to Locate Under New EU Rules

  • European Commission announces tougher air-tracking regulations
  • Measures follow 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight

Black boxes on airliners will be easier to find as a result of new European Union rules to help future accident investigators after the mysterious disappearance last year of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The underwater locator beacon in an aircraft’s black box, also known as the flight data and cockpit voice recorder, will have to operate for 90 days instead of 30 days as of mid-2018 under the new EU regulations. In addition, airlines will have to track their aircraft over oceans as of end-2018 -- a response to the vanishing in March 2014 of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777.

The disappearance of that plane on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board has prompted the world’s longest search for a commercial jet. A third element of the tougher EU regulatory regime will ensure more information for crash investigators once they locate an aircraft by requiring that, as of January 2021, the cockpit voice recorder register conversations for 25 hours instead of two hours.

"The new rules will improve the tracking of European aircraft and the location of aircraft in distress anywhere in the world,” the European Commission, the 28-nation EU’s executive arm in Brussels, said in a statement on Wednesday. "In case of an accident over water, they will also allow for a quick localization of the wreckage and a swift recovery of the data contained in the flight recorders."

Accident Investigations

Europe has sought to set an example for the International Civil Aviation Organization as regulators around the world mull new technological standards to aid accident investigations. The commission consulted EU governments in early July about the rules, which then cleared scrutiny by the European Parliament and will now enter into force.

The fatal 2009 crash into the Atlantic Ocean of an Air France jet on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, along with this year’s destruction of a Germanwings plane allegedly brought down in the French Alps by a suicidal pilot, heightened European sensitivities about the requirements for underwater locating devices, aircraft tracking systems and flight recorders.

The MH370 crash on March 8, 2014, has baffled investigators because the jet vanished from civil radar with no emergency warnings while heading north over the Gulf of Thailand and then turned to fly steadily over the equator.

Seven attempted data communications between the aircraft and an Inmarsat Plc satellite are the only clues to the direction of the aircraft after it disappeared from radar tracks. This has led to a still-unsuccessful search in a 120,000-square-kilometer zone in a remote region of the southern Indian Ocean. A jet wing flap that washed ashore in July on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean appears to be from the lost plane, Malaysian officials have said.

"For the general public, it is not understandable that aircraft are not permanently tracked wherever they fly,” said EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc. The new rules "aim to address this deficiency."

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