AirAsia Black-Box Search Restarts Debate on Tracking Technology

An international search team has yet to find the black boxes that hold clues to what brought down AirAsia Bhd. Flight 8501 almost a week ago, sparking renewed calls to speed use of technology that would make tracking planes and studying accidents easier.

The hunt under way near Pangkalan Bun, about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) southeast of Singapore includes ships sent by Malaysia and Singapore equipped with underwater sonar and French experts to help retrieve the voice and data recorders. The plane crashed in the Java Sea Dec. 28 with 162 people on board. As of Jan. 2, 30 bodies had been recovered along with parts of the plane.

Stormy weather and rough seas have hampered recovery operations that were initially expected to be relatively easy, given the shallow waters and the fact that the crash site had been pinpointed. The prolonged search highlights the lack of progress in upgrading technology even after other high-profile disasters like the Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared last year.

“I don’t know how many more lost airplanes this is going to require, but my sense is people are growing uneasy,” said Robert Mann, head of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York. People wonder “if I can do ‘find my iPhone,’ why can’t I do ‘find my airplane’?”

Air safety advocates have been pushing for years to make improvements to aircraft black boxes, such as allowing them to detach from the plane and float instead of sinking, and streaming data in real time to ground stations.

‘Good Enough’

The industry has been slow to change, citing concerns over high costs, especially given the rarity of such incidents, ownership of the data and legal issues, according to some aviation experts.

The airlines say their systems are “good enough,” said Matt Bradley, president of Flyht Aerospace Solutions Ltd., which markets a flight data streaming product.

“What’s happening now is people are saying, it’s really not.”

When a plane falls from the sky, the shoebox-size voice and data recorders are sometimes the only thing that can explain exactly what happened to the aircraft and why. Understanding the specifics that lead to crashes can help the industry improve practices and equipment, thereby trying to avoid similar disasters in the future.

AirAsia’s six-year-old Airbus Group NV A320 was heading from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore when the pilot asked to elevate to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet to avoid storm clouds. Six minutes later it dropped from radar. It took two days before search crews discovered the first signs of wreckage and began recovering bodies.

Many Questions

Little is known with certainty about what the pilots experienced or how the aircraft behaved. Speculation about the sudden disappearance with no distress call has included questions about the weather and if the plane tried to avoid a storm cell.

Searches haven’t yet detected any pings from AirAsia’s black boxes. One records up to the final two hours of cockpit sounds, including pilot conversations, while the other stores hundreds of data parameters about the plane’s physical performance throughout the flight.

The two recorders are practically indestructible, waterproof and designed to emit an electronic signal for 30 days to help searchers find them. U.S. and European regulators have called for improvements to increase the life span to 90 days.

Finding Wreckage

Step one in getting to the boxes is pinpointing the exact location of underwater wreckage. That’s done initially by using underwater microphones, or hydrophones, that are dropped down from a boat or trailed behind, to listen for pinging emitted by emergency locater beacons attached to the boxes.

Vessels that can remotely operate unmanned submarines also have been deployed to search for debris in a 574-square-nautical-mile area.

While debris was found within days, it took almost two years for investigators to recover the black boxes from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after an Air France plane went down en route from Rio de Janiero to Paris in 2009.

Only after listening to the pilots’ conversation and analyzing cockpit data did a picture emerge of the disaster as a combination of weather and pilot error.

Next Steps

Nothing has been recovered from the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane that disappeared March 8 carrying 239 people. As a result, much about that jet’s mysterious change of course remains unknown.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. agency responsible for investigating plane crashes and other civil transportation accidents, held a forum in Washington in October to discuss possible improvements to flight data and locater technology. The NTSB “is currently exploring what the next steps might be,” including possible safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, Peter Knudson, a spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.

Other agencies, including the European Aviation Safety Agency and the International Civil Aviation Organization, have said they are looking into possible improvements to plane tracking and data recoverability.

Floating Boxes

Ideas being discussed include requiring planes to carry additional black boxes or using “deployable” recorders that would disengage from the plane and float. Plane manufacturers Airbus and Boeing Co. are working on streaming data technology that wouldn’t be dependent on locating the crash-proof recorders.

The industry has debated for years the cost and benefits of installing real-time streaming of black-box information. For now, concern about high costs of such significant data transfers is outstripping those benefits.

“Economics, as always, is an important factor in the slow progress,” said Hans Weber, president of Tecop International Inc., a San Diego-based aerospace consultant. Airlines and air traffic control organizations are waiting until new standards become firm and final before spending resources on systems that they might be forced to change in a few years, he said.

“This could be viewed as an example where the better is the enemy of the good enough,” Weber said.

Cost Benefits

John Cox, chief executive officer of aviation consultant Safety Operating Systems, discounted the idea that black boxes are outdated. The difficulties in finding the Air France and Malaysia Airlines planes are anomalies, and the vast majority of downed aircraft are discovered, Cox said.

Streaming data would spur debate over the ownership of that information, as well as whether plaintiff’s attorneys could access it to sue airlines, he said.

“Is there a justification to spend hundreds of millions of dollars or more and open all these legal issues and tying up satellites that could be used for other things?” Cox said.

The industry could focus on efforts to improve the recoverability of black boxes, including using deployable recorders, said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman.

“I thought after Air France that that would result in deployable recorders being required, then I thought certainly after Malaysia 370 they would be required,” said Hall, who has done consulting work for DRS Technologies, which makes deployable recorders. “We forget at a time like this that every hour, every minute that the aircraft is lost is a lifetime for the family members.”

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