Photographer: Ed Wray/Getty Images

The Real Reason It's So Hard To Find Disappeared Planes

Airlines don't want to pay for the technology to make finding lost flights easier. But a pair of bills being introduced to Congress could change the rules.

This year it’s been an all-too-common question: How, in this era of ubiquitous, instantaneous, global communication, can a jetliner simply disappear? Plane disappearances have launched hundreds of hours of cable coverage—and now, it seems, they’ll initiate legislation. Representatives David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina, and John Duncan Jr., a Tennessee Republican, told Bloomberg Politics that the lengthy disappearance of AirAsia flight QZ8501 this weekend between Indonesia and Singapore is prompting them to reintroduce a pair of bills that would require multiple, ejectable black boxes mounted on the outside of commercial airplanes and that can float and would force the Federal Aviation Administration to require aircraft be tracked via GPS.

The black box technology the Price-Duncan measures refers to are used routinely by the U.S. Navy and Air Force, and the National Transportation Safety Board first urged Congress to mandate it on commercial planes in 1999. The bills, known together as the Safe Aviation and Flight Enhancement Act, have been introduced several times since 2003, including earlier this year after the disappearance of Malaysia Air Flight 370 over the South China Sea, only to languish amid opposition from the airline industry and plane manufacturers.

Wreckage and human remains from the AirAsia plane was finally spotted in the Java Sea off Borneo two days after it lost contact with air traffic controllers in stormy weather. The Malaysia flight, which vanished March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, has not been found despite a multinational search effort that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The bills wouldn’t have required either Malaysia Air or AsiaAir planes to incorporate the technology, but experts say that generally, regulations codified by the U.S. are adopted by other countries and adhered to by non-U.S. airlines wishing to fly to the United States.

By 2020, the FAA will require most aircraft to be equipped with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, or ADS-B, a system that will require the plane to get its GPS coordinates and transmit them to air traffic control towers. Yet ADS-B systems are designed as a replacement for traditional ground-based radar and are not expected to be “crash-worthy,” or capable of transmitting in the event of a disaster.

The AirAsia incident “once again underscores the need for the immediate detection that the use of deployable black box audio recorders, which would eject on impact and float on the surface, would provide,” Price said. “This technology, which has been used successfully for years by the United States Navy, might well have proven invaluable to gathering evidence in the AirAsia search, the Malaysian Airlines disappearance earlier this year, and countless aviation accidents since I first introduced the SAFE Act.”

Duncan, too, believes their measures would have made a difference. “Had Malaysia 370 been equipped with a deployable flight recorder, it would have likely led to the plane’s discovery and provided closure for the families of those onboard,” Duncan spokesman Patrick Newton said via e-mail. “It also could have saved many millions of dollars in search costs that are still being accrued and possibly provide answers critical to preventing a future crash.”

The bills face an uphill battle in the increasingly anti-regulatory Republican Congress. Duncan hasn't been able to fast-track it even as vice chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in recent years.  

One group vocally supporting the Price-Duncan efforts is the National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation, an advocacy group for survivors of plane crashes and the families of crash victims.  To executive director Gail Dunham, the fact that the airlines and plane makers oppose such changes is infuriating. After Malaysia Air 370, she said, activists persuaded airlines to replace 30-day batteries in black boxes with 90-day batteries, but airlines said they would only do so after the current batteries stopped working.

“The industry doesn't want to spend the money,” said Dunham, a former American Airlines customer relations employee whose ex-husband perished in a United Airlines crash in 1991. “Airline profits are at a record high. There’s no excuse for not having this technology. They aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, and the money is there.”

Money seems also to be at the root of the question of why modern airplanes don’t turn on the sort of obvious tracking capabilities via GPS that exist on most cell phones and, often, rental cars. The cost of constantly transmitting a location via satellite of every commercial plane in the sky could be prohibitive, said Rusty Aimer, a retired United Airlines pilot now with Los Angeles-based Aero Consulting Experts.

“It’s already in the airplane; you have GPS on airplanes because airlines ping it for maintenance purposes,” Aimer said. “To do it constantly, you’d only have to do a little bit of a modification. If we had all the airplanes around the world right now doing it, the satellites probably couldn’t handle it, but they can easily maneuver the satellite capacities around to make room for the tracking of most vulnerable aircraft, planes that are over oceans and maybe encountering bad weather.”

While the drama of a major airliner vanishing seems like a distant matter to Americans, dozens of planes go missing in the United States every year and a handful either take months to find or are never located. In June 2012, for instance, a twin-engine Piper plane disappeared en route from St. Paul, Minn., to Duluth, Minn., with its 67-year-old pilot on board and was never located. Eight Civil Air Patrol planes and 60 volunteers scoured the region under the aegis of the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, which steps in when local authorities need help.

The AFRCC, which reports the 2012 incident is the last unresolved missing plane in the Lower 48 states, also failed to find the doomed plane of the adventurer Steve Fossett, whose crash in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 2007 set off a high-profile search. Fossett’s remains and wreckage were eventually found more than a year later by a hiker. In that case, the plane was so broken up that the largest piece recovered was a three-foot-wide piece of engine.

The legislation would not mandate the use of detachable black boxes for private planes, but some aviation experts wish it would. “The guy who has a $100 million jet will definitely object, but if it’s mandatory, then they can’t,” Aimer said.

Aimer said the ADS-B systems, which many private planes will also have to have, may provide more information about planes in the moments before a crash. It’s less data-intensive because it would not be a constant tracking service but more of a momentary ping.

Even with the discovery of AirAsia wreckage, Aimer is astonished there’s no communication as yet coming from the plane’s emergency locator transmitters.

“It must have malfunctioned or been destroyed, but the fact is, there should be more than one and you’d think at least one or two would survive. They’re designed to withstand tremendous punishment. They should have sent signals by now. That’s the biggest puzzling thing to me.”