Airlines’ Deadly Year Has NTSB Seeking Tamper-Proof Tracking

Airplane accident investigators in the U.S. recommended tracking equipment and black-box recorders be made tamper-proof, going far beyond the measures industry groups have supported to avoid repeats of aviation disasters like the unresolved disappearance of Malaysia Air Flight 370.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board also said airlines should put video recorders in cockpits so investigators can see what the gauges showed at the time of an accident. The recommendations are among eight released Thursday in Washington designed to help accident investigations in remote regions and combat acts of pilot sabotage.

The recommendations are significantly broader and more costly for airlines than an existing proposal that the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization will consider at a meeting next month. While non-binding, the NTSB report puts new pressure on aviation agencies to act.

“Cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder data are some of the most important information sources available to help determine causes of aviation accidents,” the NTSB said in its recommendation letter. “Recent events have highlighted that recovering flight data can be costly and difficult when an accident occurs in a remote area, outside of radar coverage.”

The NTSB also said aircraft flying over oceans should be capable of reporting their position within at least one minute of a crash, which would allow searchers to pinpoint an accident site to within 7 miles (11 kilometers).

Either automatic flight tracking or devices transmitting a location during an emergency would suffice, Joseph Kolly, the NTSB’s research and engineering chief, said in an interview.

Deliberate Act

The NTSB didn’t provide cost estimates for its changes and it would be up to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration or Congress to decide whether to force them on the industry. Costs would vary depending on what equipment was used. Retrofitting electrical components would also take years to complete, based on previous safety mandates.

The FAA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The proposal for potentially expensive retrofits of all existing airliners stems from one of the most unusual aviation incidents since the dawn of the jet age in the 1950s. On March 8, Malaysian Airline System Bhd’s Flight 370 turned off its northerly course to Beijing and instead flew west toward the Indian Ocean with 239 people on board. It has never been found.

The plane appears to have been deliberately turned around and equipment that would have recorded its path was switched off, according to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. A search led by Australian authorities is looking for the Boeing Co. 777 along an arc in the Indian Ocean based on cryptic electronic signals sent from the plane’s non-working satellite phone.

‘New Look’

That event “made us really take a new look at where we were,” Kolly said.

While the NTSB letter didn’t comment on the Malaysia investigation, it cited other airline accidents in which pilots intentionally crashed. In a 1997 crash of a SilkAir Singapore Pte. Ltd. plane in Indonesia, the NTSB concluded that a pilot intentionally switched off recorders capturing cockpit sounds and flight data before crashing into a river, killing all 104 aboard.

An NTSB recommendation in 2000 that pilots shouldn’t be able to shut off black box recorders was resisted by the FAA on grounds that flight crews should be able to cut power to equipment in an emergency.

The NTSB countered in Thursday’s letter that the latest generation of aircraft have many circuit breakers that aren’t accessible to pilots.

Industry Proposals

Planes over oceans or the poles, where ground radar doesn’t function, currently radio their position to air-traffic controllers or send it via satellite data links. They can go for an hour or more without reporting their location.

An industry task force proposal to improve aircraft tracking, which will be considered at the United Nations’ ICAO safety conference starting Feb. 2 in Montreal, called for similar tracking technology but without any tamper-proof measures.

It said airlines should automatically report an aircraft’s position at least every 15 minutes. In emergencies, reporting should become more frequent, according to the group led by the International Air Transport Association trade group.

Immediate Data

“All aviation stakeholders share a common goal to make flying ever safer,” a spokesman for the trade group, Perry Flint, said in an e-mail. “We look forward to providing input into these important discussions among regulators at ICAO next month.”

Flint said the trade group didn’t have a comment on the NTSB letter.

In addition to better aircraft-position reporting, as much data as possible should be streamed instantaneously in the event of an emergency. Investigators shouldn’t have to wait until black boxes are recovered before knowing what happened, the NTSB said.

Flight recorders that automatically pop off a plane after it crashes may also allow for swifter crash investigations, the NTSB said. Such devices float and can send a precise location of the wreckage, the safety board said.

Because it has sometimes taken years to find aircraft wreckage underwater, the NTSB said planes should be equipped with new pingers attached to the fuselage to guide searchers.

While crash-proof recorders have so-called pingers that emit sound when exposed to water, they can be muffled by pieces of wreckage or damaged by impact, according to the NTSB.

Cockpit Video

It took searchers almost two years to find the wreckage of Air France Flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and Africa on June 1, 2009. The search cost $40 million, according to the NTSB.

Ships with listening devices passed near the wreckage several times in the days after the accident and didn’t hear the pingers, according to a report by the French Office of Investigations and Analysis.

Recent events show the need for some type of video recording in the cockpit to supplement the sounds and data already recorded, the NTSB said. An NTSB recommendation in 2000 for cockpit image recorders was opposed by pilot groups, which said they feared the devices would also capture images of death.

While there is no requirement for such recorders, the FAA has set standards for their use. Current models are designed to take pictures of cockpit gauges without showing the pilots.

North America’s largest flight-crew union, the Air Line Pilots Association, is “deeply concerned” with the video recommendation, President Tim Canoll said in an e-mail.

Images in the cockpit may be misused and accident investigators should instead focus on enhancing other types of flight data, Canoll said.

The NTSB recommendations were directed at the FAA, and the safety board said the U.S. aviation regulator should coordinate with other nations.

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